Harrison was born and raised in Missouri, where she attended the University of Missouri and received a PhD in physical chemistry in 1940. She was renowned for her ability to clarify complex topics and throughout her long and successful career, Harrison taught in settings as diverse as a one-room elementary school and a top-tier research university. She took a break from teaching during World War II to conduct secret research that helped lead to the development of field kits U.S. soldiers could use to detect toxic smoke.
After the war, she went to teach chemistry at Mount Holyoke College, becoming a full professor and department chair before "retiring" and subsequently teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Her research methods of choice included spectroscopy and flash photolysis. Different molecules absorb different wavelengths of light differently, depending on the molecules' composition and spectroscopy exploits these differences to figure out what's inside a solution, including how different molecules are arranged. Harrison combined this with a method called flash photolysis.
Flash photolysis is a way to study chemical reactions that involves breaking apart (lysing) molecules with laser light ("photo"). After the molecules break apart, the researcher can use spectroscopy to figure out what the pieces are and, when they reform, what the new products are.
Harrison's research mainly used light in the "ultraviolet" (UV) range - this light has a frequency too high for us to see it, but it's a powerful research tool, and she made good use of it to figure out the structure of organic (carbon-based) chemicals.
She was named president of the American Chemical Society in 1978, the first woman to hold the title. In 1983, she was named president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She was passionate about making sure that the public was kept well-informed of scientific goings-on - she served on the National Science Board from 1972 to 1978.
Harrison died in 1998 after suffering a stroke.
Photo credit: Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections