SWE Stories - Tales from the Archives Podcast: Breaking Boundaries Part One

SWE Archivist Troy Eller English talks to Anne Perusek, SWE’s Director of Editorial and Publications, about women breaking boundaries at SWE’s annual conference.
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TROY:
Welcome to SWE Stories, Tales from the Archives. I am Troy Eller English, archivist for the Society of Women Engineers.

ANNE:
And I am Anne Perusek, SWE’s Director of Editorial and Publications.

TROY:
We’re recently returned from WE18, where the energy was amazing. The conference theme was “Let’s Break Boundaries.”

ANNE:
What an appropriate theme. SWE has a tradition of acknowledging women who have broken boundaries through their accomplishments and contributions. Starting in 1952, with the first Achievement Award, SWE highest honor, the Society began recognizing women whose work was at the cutting edge. And this took place frequently ahead of wider recognition from the larger engineering and scientific community. And when you look at the history of the Achievement Award, it’s a story of astonishing scientific and engineering breakthroughs. Achievement Award recipients has always been innovators, working at the leading edge in their disciplines.

TROY:
Yet, women have also performed important work that has either been overlooked or forgotten. Sometimes by uncovering the history of one woman or group of women, you find even more.

ANNE:
Indeed, we certainly discovered this about five years ago, when documentary filmmaker LeAnn Erickson did a film called “Top Secret Rosies” of World War 2.  We ran an article about it in the confererence 2013 issue of the magazine and showed the film at WE13 in Baltimore, with the director doing a Q & A afterwards. It was very well received.

TROY:
If I remember correctly, the room was packed. People were fascinated by these women, who were hired by the government to calculate ballistics trajectories in Philadelphia during WW2. Their contributions weren’t documented, but were critical to the U.S. and its allies winning the war.

ANNE:
There was so much enthusiasm in the audience. Afterward, the director, LeAnn Erickson told us she had always puzzled over the lone African American woman in the group, wondering what was her story but had been unable to locate her or her family. From notes scrawled in pencil on back of a photo, and the help of a forensic genealogist, we discovered out quite a bit. We followed up in the winter issue of SWE Magazine with the story, Finding Alyce Hall.

As it turned out, our SWE Magazine writer, Seabright McCabe, was fascinated with this story, too. She enlisted the help of her sister, a forensic genealogist sister, Melinda Byrne, who describes her work as “the discovery of identity through kinship.” By accessing public records, and some other sleuthing, she unraveled the story of math prodigy Alyce Hall. By this time Alyce, like most of the other Top Rosies, had passed on. But her contributions continued past the war effort. As it turned out, toward the end of WWII, Alyce was one of a handful of women selected to be the first programmers of the world’s first digital computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, otherwise known as ENIAC.

TROY:
In those days, women were called computers, because they were the ones doing the computations and actually programming  the computers.

ANNE:
Yes, that’s true and is becoming better known thanks to the popular success of Hidden Figures, both the book and the film. Regarding Alyce, she also had a younger sister, Alma White. Perhaps with her older sister’s influence, Alma became a statistician on ENIAC. We were able to talk with family members and obtain old photographs and learn some of the personal history. These were remarkable discoveries, and we detailed them in the Winter 2014 issue, in the story called “Finding Alyce Hall.” By the way, I was very proud we received a national award for that story.

TROY:
Congratulations! I remember that a faintly penciled name on the back of an old photo was key to putting the story together.

ANNE:
That’s exactly right. From that one name and the help of census data and a number of fortunate events, we found Alyce Hall, and her younger sister, Alma. There were key points in unraveling the story: if any one of these hadn’t happened, we probably would not know about these women.

TROY:
I think you found the right people, right place, right time, to uncover this history.

ANNE:
Yes, First, LeAnn Erickson was working on a documentary about real estate practices and red-lining when she interviewed twin sisters Dorothy and Shirley Blumberg. Toward the end of that interview, it came up that they had worked for the government on a secret project during WW2. So naturally, LeAnn was intrigued, which led to her making the film. Then, I assigned the article to Seabright, thinking it was a good fit. I had no idea that Seabright’s sister had recently finished her term as president of the American Society of Genealogists, or that she taught forensic genealogy at Boston University. I sometimes wonder if we would have discovered all this information had I assigned the initial story to someone else, or if we had decided only to show the film rather than write about it, too.

TROY:
That's a wonderful story of the stars aligning to unveil a woman engineer's story that's been forgotten. Sometimes, though, the stars don't align by themselves.

As another example, do you know who was the first woman to receive an engineering Ph.D. in the U.S.?

ANNE:
That’s a good question, I don’t know.

TROY:
Neither did I, when an assistant dean from The Ohio State University School of Engineering asked me in 2014. He said that a Chinese citizen known in the U.S. as Ruth Feng received a Ph.D. in engineering in 1931 from OSU, and he wondered if she was the first woman in the U.S. to do so. It took me four months to find the answer!

After a quick online search I found some universities written about the first woman to receive a doctorate in engineering at their institution, but claimed the first woman engineering Ph.D.  in the U.S. So next I turned to the first volume of Margaret Rossiter's excellent three-volume series, Women Scientists in America, Struggles and Strategies to 1940.

ANNE:
Dr.Rossiter is probably the foremost scholar on women engineers and scientists in the U.S., so that would be my first place to go.

TROY:
She had analyzed the 1921 and 1938 editions of the biographical dictionary, American Men of Science and reported that just three women had received engineering doctorates by 1938. Unfortunately, she didn't report their names or institutions, and each edition of American Men of Science is far too long for me to read every name.

Instead, I found a dissertation submitted by Edna May Turner in 1954 for her Ph.D. in Education at New York University, titled, "Education of Women for Engineering in the United States 1885-1952." Turner suggested there were two women who had received a doctorate in engineering in 1931 or prior,

ANNE:
Was Ruth Feng one of them?

TROY:
No. After consulting with archivists at the University of Michigan, it turns out that while Dorothy Brophy Hall was a chemical engineer and she did receive a doctorate from UMich in 1920, but it technically in Chemistry, because the University of Michigan didn't offer Ph.D.s in engineering yet. So, on a technicality, Dorothy Brophy Hall is not the first woman in the United States with a engineering doctorate, but you should definitely go read about her on the University of Michigan Chemical Engineering department's website, because she had a long and successful career in industry and in teaching.

Turner also suggested that a woman received a doctorate in engineering at MIT. The archivists at MIT did discover that Valerie Schneider from Locker, Texas, received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 1931…but after doing a bit more digging they also discovered that Valerie was actually a man.

ANNE:
Well, we forget that names aren’t always an indicator of gender. And that’s probably all the more true for names that have fallen out of fashion and whose use has changed over time.

TROY:
So, I should know better, because my name is Troy which is a man’s name, and I get mail addressed to Mr. Troy  Eller all the time. So never assume!

So, having eliminated those leads, as far as I can tell, Ruth Feng became the first woman in the United States with a Ph.D. in engineering when she received her doctorate from OSU in 1931.

And then we forgot about her, in the United States, at least. And that's too bad, because she had a very distinguished and well-recognized career in China.

ANNE:
So, what do we really know about her?

TROY:
In China her name was Feng Yunhe. Feng Yunhe was born sometime around 1898-1900. Her father was a carpenter and as a child she worked as a maid. However, in 1923 she attended a teacher's college in China and then came to the United States in 1927 to continue her education. She first attended the University of Michigan, but then transferred to The Ohio State University, where she received a Master's degree in 1928, and a Ph.D. in 1931, both in chemical Engineering.

According to The Lantern article, Miss Feng is quite anxious to study cosmetics and their chemical constituents, since there is such a wide variation in coloring and she hopes to make this a coming, developed industry in China." That's interesting, because her career went in a completely different direction.

ANNE:
It makes me wonder if she said that based more on what gender roles and expectations might have been, rather than her true interests. It’s only speculation on my part, but it seems that frequently early women engineers expressed themselves in more typically feminine ways, in order to be more socially acceptable .

TROY:
She continued her studies in Germany in the mid-1930s, and successfully extracted rayon fibers from bamboo, rice, and sorghum. After that she dedicated her career to researching and the industrial processing of ramie, a very strong fiber crop native to China that's used in textiles and, more recently, in bioplastics.

Ruth Feng, or Feng Yunhu returned to China in 1936 and founded an industrial manufacturing association, was a government consultant on the textile industry, and served as deputy director at two chemistry institutes.

ANNE:
Her personal history takes place with major world events in the backdrop. Imagine being in Germany in the mid-30s, with all of the political upheaval and then returning to China. Do we know what happened later in her life?

TROY:
Politically, she did not fare well during China's Cultural Revolution and disappeared for a while, but she reappeared again in the late 1970s and received an Invention Award from China's State Scientific and Technological Commission in 1981. She passed away in 1988, approximately 89 years old.

So, Ruth Feng, the first woman to receive a doctorate in engineering in the United States, as far as I can tell. But if anyone comes across an earlier recipient do let me know.

ANNE:
These are little-known stories of women who broke boundaries, and we’re fortunate to know of them. I think it takes dedication and detective work to uncover these early women engineers.

TROY:
It's important to bring their stories, their careers to light, to recognize their personal achievements, to show that women have been achieving in engineering for a long time, and to inspire women to continue achieving, to be role models for future women breaking boundaries in the profession.

ANNE:
We'll continue researching and writing about women engineers breaking boundaries in the magazine and on the podcasts, but it's important to note that it's not always easy to determine specifically who was the first woman to break a boundary, history can be occluded by definitions.

TROY:
We'll explore that concept more in another podcast in a few weeks. On behalf of myself, Anne and SWE, thanks for listening.