Whiteley’s distinguished career was unique for a female chemist in this period. Several women found places as assistants to men, and a few became renowned for their research in a non-traditional field. For a woman to stake out her own patch in unexplored territory was the quickest, if not the surest, way to an outstanding reputation. To take the most obvious example, Marie Skłodowska Curie was one of the first scientists who investigated the new phenomenon of radioactivity. Constantly worried about her claim to ownership in her adopted country of France, where as a wife she was legally a non-person, Curie repeatedly and systematically buttressed her assertions of priority. But Whiteley was different: she chose a well-established topic (amides and oximes), set up her own research programme with both male and female students, and worked for many years at Imperial College, a major educational institution.
By the end of the War, female chemists were running their own research projects, lecturing at universities, writing textbooks, advising industry, inspecting factories – but they were not allowed to join the Chemical Society.
During the War, Whiteley headed a team of seven women. Putting to one side her research into drugs, she shifted to examining gases. And there was only one way for her group to do that effectively: by testing the gases on themselves. Although they did not share the fate of other wartime chemists who died through such self-experimentation, they went through some unpleasant experiences. Over 30 years later, in a lecture designed to inspire female students, Whiteley described how she had examined the first sample of mustard gas to be brought back to London: "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."
Whiteley received several tributes for her wartime research, although detailed information is hard to find because it was classified as secret. She must have felt gratified to have an explosive named after her – DW for Dr Whiteley – and also enormously proud to be awarded an OBE. But perhaps – and this can only be conjecture – she was especially pleased by a newspaper headline celebrating her as "the woman who makes the Germans weep", because of her research into tear gas.
By the end of the War, female chemists were running their own research projects, lecturing at universities, writing textbooks, advising industry, inspecting factories – but they were not allowed to join the Chemical Society until 1920, following forty years of petitions, debates and manoeuvring behind the scenes. The details of who did what when can become very complicated, but this clash between two gendered scientific communities illustrates how women created their own networks and gained strength from their fellow activists. It also, less creditably, shows how much influence a few powerful men could exert.