150 years and counting: Co-education and the College of Chemistry

Co-Ed lecture - 1880s Co-ed lecture, South Hall 1898, image: Bancroft Library

“I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy; it required a great deal of decision and of self-sacrifice.”  Marie Curie, two-time Nobel Prize Winner in chemistry and physics.[1]

by Marge d’Wylde

The decision to allow women to attend the University of California at Berkeley (Berkeley) as a co-ed institution beginning in the 1870s is directly tied to changes in American and European politics, philosophy, and scientific access that had been radically reoriented during the “long 18th century” (1685-1815); commonly known as the Enlightenment. 

During this period, an expanding international class of male scientists created a community of individuals linked by common interests and shared values, who presented their ideas in journals and through scientific organizations. By the late 17th Century, chemistry academies blossomed in London, Paris and Berlin. As the academies’ research value grew, so did governmental interest in their output. Governments began to invest and shape these organizations and their memberships.

Social opinion about advanced education for women also coalesced at this time. During the Renaissance, noblewomen had been able to find niche areas of scientific study and research and held some academic appointments. By the age of Enlightenment, with a few notable exceptions, women were relegated to the position of lab assistants and illustrators. There was such a pent-up demand for scientific education by women that courtesans utilized the famous Paris salons to educate themselves about scientific topics through invited lecturers. They were even publishing journals on science topicss to trade amongst themselves. Women were often in the majority at public lectures on scientific topics of the day.[2] and [3]

The rise of these scientific academies increased the professional and educational barriers for women into the 20th Century. Marie Curie, the first person to win two Nobel prizes, was rejected by the French Academy of Science in 1911 because she was a woman.[4]

At the same time in the U. S., women were summarily excluded from higher education until the 1830s when the first women’s colleges were founded. The situation remained static until after the Civil War when interest in women’s education began to increase and co-education got its start driven in large part by the need for more teachers to handle the increased immigrant population arriving from Europe. The suffragette movement, which also got its start after the War, added access to a college education to its high-profile list of grievances women petitioned for along with the vote.

To maintain control over the increased number of women in the workforce, marriage bars were established restricting women from marrying if they worked as teachers. It is no surprise the practice arose at the same time women began attending universities in larger numbers. Women worked around the law by hiding their marriages or taking their cases to court. These laws eventually went out of fashion but remained on the books in many states until the Civil Rights act of 1964 rendered them unconstitutional.[5]

By the 1880s, American and European universities were reluctantly opening their doors to co-education. The first woman to receive a B.S. in chemistry in the U.S. was Ellen Swallow in 1873. She was admitted to MIT by a special vote of the faculty in 1870. The record states, “it being understood that her admission did not establish a precedent for the general admission of females.” She continued her studies at MIT and would have been awarded its first M.S. degree, but the institution balked at giving this distinction to a woman instead awarding the degree to Frederick Fox, Jr. in 1886.[6] and [7]

Twenty-one years elapsed before Fanny Rysan Mulford Hitchcock at the University of Pennsylvania and Charlotte Fitch Roberts at Yale received the first chemistry doctoral degrees in 1894.[8]  Agnes Fay Morgan, Berkeley’s first woman chemist, who did groundbreaking research in nutrition and biochemistry in the home economics department, received her doctoral degree in 1914 at the University of Chicago.[9]

Co-education at Berkeley

Berkeley is in the enviable position this year of celebrating 150 years of co-education. Women began officially registering in 1870 with the Regent’s permission, although they had been auditing classes since 1868.[10]  Seventeen women enrolled that first year. Four years later, president Daniel Coit Gilman (1872-1875) stated that Berkeley had more women who ranked high in scholarship than men. By 1900, women comprised 60 percent of the student body at Berkeley.  At the same time, most U.S. colleges and universities still either excluded women or enforced quotas to keep the numbers low.  Today there are over 15,000 female and 13,000 male students in Berkeley’s undergraduate programs.[11] and [12]

Not everyone at Berkeley agreed with the co-ed policy. As women started to take classes, the common perception was that education interfered with women’s roles as wives and mothers. A 1904 address by UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler (1899-1919) to the Women’s Associated Student Government of Berkeley captures this attitude:

“The public-school system of California knows of no difference between men and women, and the University is part of California’s public-school system. But the women are not here to be like men. Womanhood is too good, too sacred, to change. Through education women should grow more-true, more-womanly. There is no object in trying to do what men do…. You are not here with the ambition to be school-teachers or old maids, but you are here for the preparation of marriage and motherhood.” [13]

Despite this prevailing opinion, the ability of women to take any curriculum including agriculture, chemistry, engineering, and mechanical arts along with literature and classics, paved the way for women to move into the sciences.

The first women students in science

Rosa Leticia Scrivener Ph.B. 1874, Agri

Rosa Leticia Scrivener Robinson

Rosa Scrivener Robinson (1851-1914) was Berkeley’s first female science graduate and was closely allied with chemistry. She received her Agriculture degree in 1874. Her senior thesis was entitled: “The Social Development in the San Joaquin Valley”.

At that time, all students in the science curriculums were required to study chemistry in their junior and senior years which means Rosa did her chemistry class and lab with the College’s first chemistry professor and dean, Willard B. Rising. Rising had arrived in 1872 fresh from his doctoral defense in Germany. She would have used laboratory instruments purchased by Robert Fischer, Berkeley’s first chemistry lecturer, during an 1868 trip to Europe. She attended classes in the temporary Oakland campus as South Hall, as the chemistry department’s first official home, was not completed until 1873.  

Rosa’s education and work experience were the topic of a 1901 San Francisco Chronicle article.[14] “It did not take Miss Scrivner [sic] long to avail [herself] of the legislation of October 2, 1870, by which the Board of Regents extended to women all the advantages enjoyed by men.” The article goes on to describe the not always mild hazing that Rosa and her fellow women students received in their classes from the male students and faculty, who were not used to women in their midst and not particularly happy about the co-ed policy.

Rosa went on to teach in Stockton, Ca. remaining single during her time as a teacher. “…[she] stood faithfully by her post for many years. Finally, when on the verge of nervous prostration from overwork, she preempted land in the northern part of California. It was there she became Mrs. Robinson. She is now a woman of influence and great usefulness in her community.”

Rosa married widower John Robinson in 1891 after she acquired land for a farm from the Bureau of Land Management in Northern California’s Yolo County. She had one son with Robinson and raised an infant stepdaughter from his first marriage. She was accompanied by her mother and a niece. Although there are no details on the kinds of crops the Robinsons raised, Rosa’s degree was apparently an important asset as she was widely tapped as an agricultural advisor in the region.

Rosa believed her time at Berkeley served her well. She commented, “If every ‘co-ed’ were an equally ‘powerful, purposeful personality’ and made an equally good use of the results of college discipline there could be no opposition to co-education.”

The Bragg Sisters

(l to r) Elizabeth and Adah Bragg, undated, images: San Francisco Chronicle and Ancestry.com

Elizabeth Bragg, Ph.B. 1876, Civil Eng

Elizabeth Bragg Cummings

Elizabeth Bragg Cummings (1858-1929) and Adah Bragg Holmes (1862-1952) both studied science at Berkeley. Elizabeth received her Ph.B. in civil engineering (the first woman in the country to do so) in 1876. Adah followed as one of the first three women to receive a chemistry Ph.B. at Berkeley in 1881. 

Elizabeth was highly gifted in mathematics. She was unhappy at her high school in San Francisco, so her father, Robert Bragg, moved her to the preparatory high school attached to Berkeley where she was required to study Latin in order to matriculate. After high school she went straight into the department of civil engineering. She took all the science track courses, including chemistry, and excelled in them all. 

Her course focus was practical surveying. If she had remained at Berkeley for some graduate work, her professors would have recommended her for a position in the draughting rooms of the United States Coast Survey. She decided to teach instead. 

According to Elizabeth, “The professors were kind enough to the girls when they stood well, but there was no consideration for them because they were girls. We were hustled along with the boys. It is true that for the most part we were looked on as interlopers, but we went right along and attended to our work. My work was unusual, and possibly I had less friction than some of the other ‘co-eds.’ And then I was sort of a boy among boys, and so I managed to get along pretty comfortably.

“Oh, yes, we were looked upon as queer and forward for wanting to [be at] the University and we felt conspicuous, but the little things did not count, and I look back on those days as one of genuine pleasure.”[15]

Elizabeth married fellow engineering student George Cummings (Ph.B. Civil Eng, 1881) in 1888 and stopped teaching. They had four sons named George, Robert, David and Alan.

Adah Bragg, Ph.B. 1881, Chem

Adah Bragg Holmes

Elizabeth’s sister Adah was one of the first three women to graduate in chemistry in 1881. Her fellow students were Kate Sessions and Nellie Sell.

Adah taught after she left school until her marriage in 1891 to Henry Edmond Holmes. They had three children named Henry, Adah and Philbrook. Henry ran a carriage manufacturing business on Folsom Street in San Francisco.

Katherine Sessions, Ph.B. 1881, Chem

Katherine Sessions

Katherine (Kate) Sessions (1857-1940) had a strong interest in plants when she was a child and is best remembered as the “Mother of Balboa Park.” However, it might be more accurate to designate her as the female “Johnny Appleseed” of San Diego.

She was instrumental in the planning and planting of Palm Canyon and the Aloe and Agave Garden. The plants and trees she introduced to the area are now found all over San Diego and beyond. Although San Diego’s parks, streets, and gardens are now lush with many shrubs, trees, vines, and succulents from all over the world, at the time Kate arrived there, much of San Diego was empty land. She procured many new species of plants from growers worldwide and introduced those plants to the region. Blessed with a mild climate, San Diego proved to be a fertile growing area for many of these species.

Kate graduated from Berkeley with a degree in chemistry in 1881. She said of her experience, “although I was a university graduate, 30 years ago one got but little of botany and the other natural sciences at college. There were but three or four field days during the whole course. But I loved plants and trees, and I could always make things grow, so I wasn’t afraid. I left my home and friends and went to work.”[16]

She moved to San Diego in 1884 to teach but she didn’t like the work. She started a plant nursery in 1892 initially with two partners, contracting with the city to plant 100 trees a year for 10 years in exchange for a nursery area in the northwest corner of what is now Balboa Park. She is said to have introduced the jacaranda, poinsettia, orchid tree, bougainvillea, bird of paradise, and many other exotic plants now common in regularly used in gardens.

Kate published numerous articles in magazines, newspapers, and journals, including California Garden. She also taught extensively throughout her career and was a founding member of the San Diego Floral Association. Sessions was the first woman awarded the American Genetic Association’s Frank M. Meyer Medal. [17]

The College’s first doctoral students

Advanced science degrees had become a requirement for chemistry professorships by the late 19th century. Ambitious male chemistry students went to Germany for one to three years to obtain doctorates or do postdocs. Many of the College’s founders, including the College’s first dean Willard Rising, received their advanced degrees in Germany and France. G. N. Lewis did his postdoc with Wilhelm Ostwald and Walther Nernst after completing his doctoral degree at Harvard.

Ironically, American women also first received doctoral degrees in Europe. In the 1880s, the only place a woman could obtain a chemistry doctorate was in Switzerland. The celebrated American chemist Rachel Lloyd was the first to receive her Ph.D. at the University of Zurich in 1886. She matriculated not because Zurich was more open minded, but simply because they needed to meet student quotas. [18]

Another irony of Rachel’s chemistry experience was that her introduction to the profession was a result of spending time in her husband’s lab. In an 1893 interview Rachael said of her early experience:

The girl-wife dearly loved to perch herself, with some bit of sewing, in the deep window of her husband’s laboratory, which was a part of their home, and, as she became familiar with the apparatus and watched the experiments with wondering eyes, she little dreamed that the same work would one day be hers in even more extended fields.”[19]

Berkeley’s first woman doctoral student was Milicent Shinn (1858-1940) who was a classic example of the brilliance required of young women of the day to be accepted into graduate programs. She finished her undergraduate degree in 1880, edited the journal Overland Monthly from 1882 to 1894, and went on to receive her Ph.D. in psychology in 1898; only the eleventh Ph.D. awarded at Berkeley.

Her dissertation, “Notes on the Development of a Child”, was published in three installments between 1893 and 1899 and was based on observations of her niece over two years. In 1900, she published a popular version of her findings entitled The Biography of a Baby. Her writing received widespread acclaim, and for years her dissertation was considered the foundational text for developmental psychology classes. Even Wilhelm Preyer, her only predecessor in such a comprehensive record, was impressed, and called for the work to be translated into German.

However, Milicent did not practice psychology. Instead, she returned home to care for her aging parents and her brothers’ families. She never married.[20]

By the time Willard Rising retired in 1908, only four Ph.D. degrees had been awarded from the College. In 1912, Gilbert Newton Lewis arrived from MIT to serve as dean and build the graduate and research programs. When he left 29 years later in 1941, the number of undergraduate degrees per year had risen to approximately 60, and 250 chemistry Ph.D. degrees had been awarded. Three of those Ph.D.s went to Marjorie Young (Vold) and Maxine Young in 1936, and Helen Louise West (Nutting) in 1937.[21]  These women were all contemporaries of the world-renowned chemist Glenn T. Seaborg who received his Ph.D. in 1937.

It would take two World Wars to open Berkeley to women chemistry doctoral students.  By the 1930s, the U.S. was heavily embroiled in war research. World War I had cut off ties with German scientists leaving the U.S. with a dearth of chemists to do advanced laboratory research.  As World War II ramped up, doctoral programs, including Berkeley, began accepting women. These first female graduates went on to work in the war effort alongside their male counterparts.

Marjorie Jean Young Vold (Ph.D. 1936, Chem)

Marjorie Jean Young (1913 – 1991) was born in Ottawa, Ontario. She moved to the United States in 1918 and became a U.S. citizen in 1921. She came from a family of scientists dating back to 1895. Her father and grandfather both worked at the Lick Observatory in Oakland as astronomers.[22]

Marjorie was a Berkeley Medalist, colloid chemist, distinguished professor, author, and researcher. Her time at Berkeley was marked by an exceptional educational career. She earned her B.S. in 1934 graduating Phi Beta Kappa. She was the first woman chemistry student to receive the University Medal and was valedictorian that year. She earned her Ph.D. in 1936 at the age of 23 focused on thermodynamic chemistry. Her thesis entitled “The Kinetics and Mechanism of the Reactions between Phenyl-Halogen-Acetic Acids and Halide Ions” was written under the mentorship of Axel Ragnar Olsen[23].

The year she graduated she married fellow student Robert Vold (Ph.D. ’35, Chem). They had three children, Mary, Robert and Wylda, all born during World War II. Marjorie and Robert did a four-year postdoc at Stanford University in the lab of James William McBain who spearheaded major advances in colloid chemistry, introducing thermodynamic descriptions to the previously small and qualitative field. During World War II, she worked as an industrial chemist for Union Oil Company.

Her career was largely devoted to research in collaboration with Robert. Internationally recognized in the chemistry community for their contributions to colloid science, the Volds established the renowned Center for Surface and Colloid Chemistry at the University of Southern California where they both taught and researched.  In 1964, Marjorie and Robert published Colloidal Chemistry, a popular reference textbook.

She received a Guggenheim Fellowship to teach in the Netherlands in 1953, the only woman chemist to earn that honor between 1940 and 1970. In 1957, she was the first woman to address the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India. She was named one of the Los Angeles Times “Women of the Year” in 1966 and was awarded the Garvan Medal by the American Chemical Society in 1967 for her pioneering work in computer models of colloids.

Marjorie overcame many personal setbacks during her career. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1958 and became confined to a wheelchair. She wrote her final scientific paper, “Micellization Process with Emphasis on Premicelles,” at the age of 78. The paper was published posthumously in 1992.

Maxine Barton Bardsley Young (Ph.D. 1936, Chem)

Maxine Barton Bardsley (1906 – 1999) was born in Beaver, Utah. In her high school yearbook, she was described as “scientific, with an interest in swimming, basket, and baseball, the chemistry club, and was a scholarship award recipient.” Her father, Edward Bardsley, was a miner and President of the Mammoth Copper Mine.

It’s not clear what brought Maxine to Berkeley. She did her undergraduate and graduate work at the College receiving her A.B. in 1929, M.S. in 1931, and her Ph.D. in 1935. Her graduate field of study was radiation and atomic structures. E.D. Eastman was her faculty advisor while she worked on her dissertation entitled “Electromotive Force of Calomel Thermocells and the Partial Molal Entropy of Chloride Ion.”

Maxine met her husband, fellow chemist Herbert Alexander Young (Ph.D. 1932, Chem) at Berkeley. Herbert received his Ph.D. in physical and inorganic chemistry. They were married in 1929 and had one son named John in 1938. Herbert stayed at Berkeley as a lecturer while Maxine finished her Ph.D. He began as an assistant professor at UC Davis (then the University Farm) in 1934 and was an assistant chemist in the experiment station. Maxine worked as a researcher. 

As the U.S. moved into World War II, Berkeley scientists became responsible for overseeing the Manhattan Project which was responsible for the atom bomb. A number of Berkeley trained chemists were enlisted by renowned physicist Ernest Lawrence to join the war effort. The Youngs moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee where Herbert headed up the Y-12 project to produce enriched uranium for the atomic bomb project.

There’s no apparent documentation that states what Maxine did at Oak Ridge. However, as a professional chemist, with a background in radiation and atomic structure, she was likely a highly valued resource and worked as a researcher.

After the war, the couple returned to Davis where Herbert became a full professor, and eventually Dean of the College of Chemistry at UC Davis.  Maxine resumed her work as a researcher at the University.

Go to next section: Women join chemical engineering


[1] Curie, Marie, Biography of Pierre Curie P 196

[2] A History of Western Society, vol 2, PP 527-531

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_in_the_Age_of_Enlightenment#Women_in_science (Accessed March 31, 2020)

[4] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/curie-marie-sklodowska-greatest-woman-scientist/ (Accessed March 31, 2020)

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage_bar#History_of_Marriage_Bars_in_the_United_States (Accessed March 31, 2020)

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Swallow_Richards  (Accessed March 31, 2020)

[7] Alexander, Philip N., A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT. The MIT Press, 2011. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hhdh5  (Accessed March 31, 2020)

[8] Rothenberg, Marc, ed., History of Science in the United States, An Encyclopedia, P 116

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnes_Fay_Morgan (Accessed March 31, 2020)

[10] Nerad, Maresi, The Academic Kitchen P19-20

[11] Johnson, Heather R., UC Berkeley Trailblazers, https://alumni.berkeley.edu/announcements/caa-announcements/womenatcal (Accessed March 31, 2020)

[12] Cal Answers, https://calanswers.berkeley.edu/home (Accessed March 31, 2020)

[13] The Daily Californian, 1897-1954. “Dean of Women Report. In Report of the President, 1904-1920. University of California Archives, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

[14] San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 1901, “The Women Pioneers of the University of California”, P 25

[15] Ibid. P 34

[16] Smith, Bertha H., Sunset, The Pacific Monthly, Vol 29, December, No 6. P

[17] https://library.sdsu.edu/sites/default/files/KPBSSessionsTranscript_0.pdf (Accessed March 31, 2020)

[18] Rayner-canham, Geoffrey, et al., Chemistry Was Their Life: Pioneering British Women Chemists, 1880-1949, Imperial College Press, 2008. P149

[19] Lindblom, Keith, L. Pioneering Woman in Chemistry, “Rachel Lloyd, Ph.D.”, American Chemical Society, 2014

[20] Elizabeth Scarborough, Shinn, “Milicent Washburn”, https://doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1400792 (Accessed March 31, 2020)

[21] University of California Digital Archive historical records

[22] Shearer, Benjamin F., et al, Notable Women in the Physical Sciences, A Biographical Dictionary

[23] Gibson, G.E, et al. In Memoriam: Axel Ragnar Olsenhttp://texts.cdlib.org/view?docId=hb0w10035d&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=div00044&toc.depth=1&toc.id= (Accessed March 6, 2020)