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Martha Annie Whiteley in lab
Dr Martha Annie Whiteley

Martha Annie Whiteley was one of 19 female chemists who campaigned for women to be admitted to the Chemical Society.

In 1868, when Martha was two years old, there was a great prejudice towards women in science. The Chemical Society did not admit female fellows, Oxford University did not award degrees to women and the government-appointed Schools Enquiry Commission reported that: ‘There is a long-established and inveterate prejudice… that girls are less capable of mental cultivation, and less in need of it, than boys.’

Martha continued with her chosen career amidst this environment and helped to change it for the better, caring for other women who were trying to do the same.

Martha began studying science at the first school belonging to the Girls’ Public Day School Trust, which provided affordable day school education for girls. She continued studying science in higher education and achieved her doctorate in 1902 with the Royal College of Science, whilst working part-time as a science lecturer at a college for female teachers. Later she joined the Royal College of Science staff and in 1907, when the college merged into the newly-formed Imperial College, Martha was one of two female professional staff. At the rector’s request, in 1912 she founded the Imperial College Women’s Association.

Campaign for female Chemical Society admission

Admission to the Chemical Society Certificate

In 1904 Martha and 18 other female chemists attempted to change the male-only admission criteria to become a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s oldest predecessor, the Chemical Society. They suggested that free access to the library of the society, and attending its meetings, would help their research. Between 1873 and 1903 only about 150 women had been authors or joint authors of 300 papers published by the society.

Despite the council voting in favour, at the necessary meeting a small minority of objectors attended and voted against the petition. 

The women had to wait four years until another vote was won. It looked like Martha would be allowed to join at this point, however the result was once again brushed aside because of the opinions of some of the leaders of the council. 

The editor of Nature was strongly opposed to the conclusion, exclaiming that why should men be preferred simply because “they wear a distinctive dress and are privileged to grow a moustache?” The full article makes a compelling read.

It took legal requirements in the form of the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act to finally result in women’s admission to the society. Martha was one of the first female members and later became the first elected to the society’s council.

Studying mustard gas

Martha Whiteley in the lab

In 1914, the Ministry of Munitions took over the chemistry department at Imperial College, where Martha was working. Here she was asked, alongside her colleagues, to analyse samples from battlefields and bombsites. Regrettably, Martha still used alchemist-style analytical methods and was recorded studying mustard gas:

“I naturally tested this property by applying a tiny smear to my arm and for nearly three months suffered great discomfort from the widespread open wound it caused in the bend of the elbow, and of which I still carry the scar.”

Martha survived her war research, and was awarded an OBE for it.

For the rest of her career, Martha stayed at Imperial College, continuing to write and research. She co-authored a manual of organic analysis, which was based on the undergraduate course that she taught. She compiled, edited, and wrote parts of the various versions of the Dictionary of Applied Chemistry, and helped out at Imperial College even after she had formally retired.

Words by Jenifer Mizen
Images © College Archives Imperial College London
Published August 2013

Further information

“Chemistry Was Their Life: Pioneering British Women Chemists, 1880-1949”, Marelene F. Rayner-Canham, Geoffrey Rayner-Canham, Imperial College Press 2008

“Martha Whiteley of Imperial College, London: A Pioneering Women Chemist”, Rafaelle M. Nicholson, John W. Nicholson, J. Chem. Educ., 2012, 89 (5), pp 598-601, DOI: 10.1021/ed2005455

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