In the early 1920s, the opening up to academic education for women slowed. “Women’s colleges – like Royal Holloway College and Bedford College in London, Somerville College in Oxford and Newnham College in Cambridge – were critical to finding a way that women could get a chemistry education,” explains chemical historian Geoff Rayner -Canham from Memorial University in Canada.
However, significant social barriers hindered every graduate who then wanted to use her training in the chemical industry. In the period before World War I – and even more so during it – academic roles became more accessible to women. But after the war the barriers were raised again. “There was this big slump among women chemists,” says Geoff Rayner-Canham.
The assumption was that women do not have the innate ability to do original research
“There are many different theories about it,” says Rebecca Kaplan of the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, USA. Progress from the mid-19th century to World War I was thanks to the struggle of the women’s suffrage movement. But with the agreement on the right to vote, the urge for equality suddenly came to a standstill. The movement “is falling apart without a common goal,” explains Kaplan, and expectations of traditional gender roles are returning. This was a global phenomenon. For women in Europe, there was the added problem of being excluded from academic careers to make room for men returning from the trenches.
Women who were given access to industrial laboratories were almost always given only routine tasks, with their work being supervised by men. “At the time, it was assumed that women genetically did not have the innate ability to do original research,” explains Geoff Rayner-Canham.
It was customary to use only one initial letter – so people assumed the applicant was male
Kathleen Culhane (known as Kay) was one of the few British chemists of the era to successfully break these barriers and establish herself as a highly respected researcher. She then developed analytical techniques that are critical to both the pharmaceutical and food industries.
But Culhane didn’t originally want to be a chemist. When she enrolled at Royal Holloway College in 1918, she was taking a botany course. It was here that her interest in chemistry blossomed and she switched courses to graduate with honors in chemistry.
Culhane embarked on a career in industrial research and began applying for jobs. “Kay got some interviews by signing her cover letter” K “and not Kathleen,” wrote her daughter Rosalind Bramley in a 1991 article in Chemistry in the UK. She was rejected for all of these roles when her gender was revealed. “No name, just an initial – that’s how people assumed” [the applicant] was male – it was common back then, ”explains Marelene Rayner-Canham, also from Memorial University.
To pay the bills, Culhane taught and coached chemistry students. In her spare time she worked free of charge performing routine emergency blood glucose tests in the diabetes clinic of what is now the Royal London Hospital. John Marrack ran this laboratory and invited Culhane to join his team after meeting them at the Royal Institute of Chemistry (a predecessor to the Royal Society of Chemistry). This work was at the forefront of medical science, with insulin not becoming available as a diabetes treatment in Britain until April 1923 (see Hundred Years of Insulin).
After two years of unsuccessful applications, Culhane finally got a research position at Neocellon, a manufacturer of paints and enamels. Here she helped develop durable, colored enamels for gas-filled electric light bulbs. For once, it was Culhane’s favor to be a woman, indeed in Culhane’s favor, when she applied for the position. “The company honestly admitted it couldn’t afford to pay a man and was giving her £ 120 a year,” Bramley wrote in her Chemistry in the UK Items.
I was expected to do all the boring, routine chores while one of the men was handed something interesting
Marrack soon lured Culhane back to the hospital with a salary of £ 265 a year (the equivalent of around £ 47,000 today). She returned to blood tests and was also a general chemical consultant in her department. Marrack then pulled a favor with a friend to secure a role for Culhane in the physiology division of the British Drug Houses (BDH). This was a large pharmaceutical and chemical company and a large UK manufacturer of insulin. At first, Culhane thought that her appointment here meant that her struggles for her research career are over for good.
However, this was not the case, as a later conversation about her career revealed. “Little by little, I found that my intention was not to be a chemist, but a chemist … I was expected to do all the boring, routine chores … while one of the men was given anything interesting.” She noted also other differences in the way it was treated. “The male graduate… gets a decent salary, even if he’s still young. With a good university degree, he usually gets a very worthy position right from the start. The girl who worked side by side with him at college is tough and constantly humiliated [and must work her way up from the bottom rung] . ‘
Culhane’s role was to conduct quality checks on the insulin at various stages in the manufacturing process. Back then, little was known about the chemical makeup of insulin, so she used a biological test – monitoring blood sugar levels in rabbits given insulin.
Culhane was still determined to do original research, and did so after hours. She quickly achieved success, and during her time with the BDH, she received permission to publish over a dozen papers. As her publications increased her reputation outside of the UK grew. In 1928, Culhane took part in a tour organized by the Society of Chemical Industry to US and Canadian chemical societies. In the same year she also joined the Health Organization Committee of the League of Nations.
With the committee she participated in a comparison between the biological activity of crystalline and amorphous insulin. The samples were examined independently by the four committee members, with Culhane receiving results inconsistent with those of her male counterparts. She was asked to withdraw her results but refused – and her results were later proven to be correct. ‘Kay received a private congratulatory letter from [one of the committee members] , but not a public retraction, “Bramley explained in herChemistry in the UK Items.
After hours, Culhane did his own research and published over a dozen articles. In 1928 she joined the League of Nations Health Organization Committee. With the committee she participated in a comparison between the biological activity of crystalline and amorphous insulin. The samples were examined independently by the four committee members, with Culhane receiving results inconsistent with those of her male counterparts. She was asked to withdraw her results but refused – and her results were later proven to be correct. ‘Kay received a private congratulatory letter from [one of the committee members] , but not a public retraction, “Bramley explained in herChemistry in the UK Items.
Culhane developed improved biological assays for vitamins and gave a lecture in Manchester on the need to standardize the process of adding vitamins to food. Scurvy, rickets, and other diseases caused by vitamin deficiency were prevalent at the time, and it was gradually becoming clear that processed foods were deprived of nutrients during manufacture.
Her inexperienced male successor started out with a salary of £ 100 more than she earned!
The lecture was given by a journalist for a Manchester newspaper, the Daily shipping. He described Culhane as “the pied piper girl of science … a pretty girl with blue eyes and hair cut short” and was incredulous that she was “a responsible officer in the research department of a famous British pharmaceutical company.” It is not known how Culhane reacted to this incident, but Bramley wrote in 1991 about her mother’s handling of another newspaper reporter. “She was asked if she thought women were as good at scientific research as men,” Bramley said. The brief answer was that she could not see to what extent “a person’s qualifications as a chemist are in any way affected by the sex accident”.
In July 1933, Culhane married George Lathbury. Back then, women were expected to stop working after marriage. She was allowed to stay in her role because of the importance of her research, but was angry that this was up for discussion. After their marriage, she continued to be invited to committees to publish papers on vitamin assays and standardization, and received a fellowship from the Royal Institute of Chemistry. However, in 1936 she left her BDH when she was pregnant with Bramley. ‘Her inexperienced male successor started with a salary of £ 100 more than she left off!’ Bramley wrote in her article.
At the start of World War II in 1939, Lathbury set out to find a way to contribute to the war effort. However, although it was often publicly claimed that there was a lack of scientists in the industry, none of the positions were open to women. Lathbury was persistently appointed head of statistical quality control at a weapons factory. Her male colleagues in other arms factories earned more than double their salaries and were allowed to travel to conferences in London in first grade – Lathbury went to third grade. Her competence did not go unnoticed, however, and in 1942 she was made a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.
After the war, Lathbury retired from science and immersed himself in rural Hampshire life. In later life she began to paint and participated in exhibitions in the area, London and Paris. At the age of 78, she even had a solo exhibition at the Loggia Gallery near Buckingham Palace. “Kay … tackled art the only way she’s ever done it – thoroughly,” her daughter explained.
Lathbury died at the age of 93. Her story deserves to be heard, not only because of her research successes, but because her drive and perseverance led to her being successful where so many women of her time failed: recognition and recognition for her scientific excellence in an industrial one chemical setting. It’s just a shame that she wasn’t paid fairly for it! However, according to Bramley, her mother wasn’t bitter from her experience as a scientist in a man’s world. “She only shared with incredulous amusement stories of the difficulties and humiliations that had haunted her endeavors,” she wrote.
Nina Notman is a science writer based in Salisbury, United Kingdom