One of the first American women to gain a PhD, Rachel Lloyd made significant contributions to sugar beet farming.
A bright pupil
Rachel Abbie Holloway was born in 1839 in Flushing, Ohio, to members of the Society of Friends. She attended Miss Margaret Robinson’s School for Young Ladies, Philadelphia, where she was described by her teacher as “by far the brightest pupil at the school”.
Rachel later became a teacher at the same school and it was whilst teaching here that she met chemist Franklin Lloyd, whom she married in 1859. Sadly, over the next few years, Rachel was inflicted with grief: their two children both passed away in infancy and shortly after, her husband died of bilious fever.
Following the death of her husband, Rachel left America and travelled to Europe for a couple of years. When she returned to Philadelphia, she began work at an infant Sunday school. The Bishop here described her as “wonderful” - not only devoting herself to the spiritual and physical welfare of the children, but also visiting them in the worst parts of the city, at great personal risk.
“She knew each child by name, maintained perfect order without the slightest show of authority, and imparted her instructions so as to win all their hearts.”
(Bishop Thomas F. Davies)
One of the first American women to hold a PhD
In honour of her husband’s memory, and 16 years after his death, Rachel went to study chemistry at Harvard Summer School, under Charles F. Mabery. She continued to research acrylic acid derivatives at Harvard for the next eight summers and published three papers in the American Chemical Journal. Highlighting the rarity of women in chemistry at the time, Rachel was the first woman to publish in the journal.
In 1885, Rachel applied for the position of professor of chemistry at Taylor College, Pennsylvania. But, despite having high testimonials from the professors at Harvard, she was turned away. Although no degrees were given to women in America at the time, the college insisted that all instructors must possess a title after their name.
Rachel’s determination then drove her to Zurich, Switzerland, where she studied for two years for her PhD. Rachel’s research was based on the high-temperature conversion of phenols to aromatic amines and it was during this time that her interest in sugar beets began.
On her return to America, equipped with her PhD, she accepted the position of assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Nebraska. With her interest in sugar beet, Rachel continued her research into this new crop, in addition to her college duties. As part of an experimental programme to determine whether sugar beets could grow in a northern climate, she analysed beets to improve the quality of seeds sent out to farmers over the state. Arguably, Rachel’s biggest success was to establish sugar beet factories over the state of Nebraska, with the Oxnard Sugar Factory in Grand Island being the first.
Rachel published much of her work on sugar beets and her co-worker, Professor H.H. Nicholson, insisted on her taking full credit for her laborious work. On one occasion, Rachel read one of her papers to a room full of influential men. H.H. Nicholson described the event:
“Now I suppose that some of those men laboured under the impression that a woman and a wash tub ought to be inseparable. At any rate they seemed surprised that a woman could calmly walk up on the platform and read a scientific paper. You should have seen the thrill of life that ran through the assembly; the president sat bolt upright; interest came into faces and eyes, and a perfect silence and deep attention followed where a moment before had been conversations. At the close of the paper they applauded to the echo — none of the rest of speakers received that. And before the day was over, Mrs. Lloyd had been requested to read her address in another city.”
(H. H. Nicholson)
In 1888, the University of Nebraska finally recognised Rachel’s talents and promoted her to full professor. Two years later, she became the second woman to join the American Chemical Society.
Sadly, not long after, she was forced to give up her teaching and research duties; Rachel suffered paralysis and ill health, thought to be caused by overworking. This eventually led to her death in 1900.
Rachel’s life teaches us that inner will-power can overcome any obstacle that may lie in our path to success. Her drive to educate herself in the chemical sciences at a time when women were not even allowed to study for a degree is truly inspirational.
Words by Jenny Lovell and Isobel Marr
Image courtesy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries
Published April 2015