Photo credit: College Archives Imperial College London, Edward Cahen

English Chemist Martha Annie Whiteley (1866-1956) campaigned for women to be admitted to London’s Chemical Society (the precursor to the present-day Royal Society of Chemistry) and became its first female council member.

Whitelely received a chemistry degree from the University of London and an honors mathematical moderation from the University of Oxford. She taught at a high school from 1891 to 1900, then took a position at a women’s teacher’s training college. At the same time (starting in 1898) she began working towards a doctorate in organic chemistry from the Royal College of Science, which was awarded to her in 1902.

At that time, women were denied membership in the Chemical Society of London. Membership in the Chemical Society provided important gateways for career advancement – networking, meetings to hear about the latest and greatest chemical findings, access to the society’s library, etc. But, women were shut out from these opportunities.

Martha and 18 of her fellow female chemists set out to change this. In 1904, they petitioned the society’s council. The council voted in favor, but a vocal minority within the powers-to-be objected. And the same thing happened 4 years later.

Finally, the law (in the form of the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act) forced them to admit women. Martha was one of the first to join and the first woman to be elected to serve on its council. She also worked with Ida Smedley Maclean to found the Chemical Society’s Women’s Dining Club.

In addition to her advocacy, Martha was a talented chemist and teacher. She took a position at the Royal College of Science, which merged into Imperial College in 1907, where she was one of only two women on the professional staff. In 1912 she founded the Imperial College Women’s Association and served as its president for 20 years.

She co-authored an influential organic analysis textbook, and became senior editor of Thorpe’s Dictionary of Applied Chemistry. She was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her WWI contributions studying pharmaceutical drug synthesis and mustard gas. She retired from Imperial College in 1934.

Photo credit: College Archives Imperial College London, Edward Cahen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.