Chemistry’s history through the feminist lens

Rosalind Franklin, Gerty Cori and Marie Lavoisier

Source: © Science Photo Library and © Alamy Stock Photo

Examining how science excludes women and other underrepresented groups

It’s not widely known that ’history’s first chemist’ was a woman. Her name was Tappūtī-bēlat-ekalle, she lived in ancient Assyria, and was the head perfumer of an established professional group of female perfumers circa 1230 BCE. Tablets have been discovered with her recipes for perfumes which outline, among other things, how to conduct basic chemical processes such as heat extraction and filtration.

Looking back on women’s history month, I’ve been thinking of the multifaceted ways that this commemoration can promote the equality of women, especially within chemistry. Bringing forward the stories of women like Tappūtī-bēlat-ekalle helps illuminate the fact that female chemists have been persistently neglected. Simply informing the general public about such historical details is valuable in its own right as it helps us to review our preconceptions about women’s presence in chemistry. However, it also reveals another issue: why haven’t such stories been incorporated in the standard histories of chemistry and in teaching textbooks? In turn, this prompts another question. On what grounds should we recognise specific actors in the historical reconstruction of a field? Is there a good reason why Robert Boyle is celebrated as the father of chemistry, while Tappūtī-bēlat-ekalle is largely overlooked?