The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
An update on the career and family life of chemist Fern P. Rathe, featured in the Women in Science Wednesday post on July 17, 2013.
While communicating with her family and preparing this update, we learned that Fern P. Rathe passed away peacefully on September 27, 2013. We are honored to share more of her story with you below.
For Women in Science Wednesday on July 17, we featured Fern P. Rathe, part of the Merck research team that isolated the antibiotic cathomycin in 1955. Some of our readers found it disconcerting that so little information was available about her accomplishments and research; so we set out to find out more about this inspiring chemist.
The following biography was composed by Fern's husband, John.
Fern Pfafflin was born January 8, 1930 in La Crosse Wisconsin. Her parents were Edward and Bessie (Chalsma) Pfafflin. She grew up on a farm near New Amsterdam, Wisconsin, and went to a one-room rural schoolhouse there. She went to high school in nearby Holmen, Wisconsin, was valedictorian of her class, and graduated in 1948. Fern attended Carleton College in Northfield Minnesota and graduated with a Bachelors degree in 1952. Her college major was chemistry and zoology.
After college graduation she was employed by Merck and Company, Rahway, New Jersey as a biochemist working under Dr. Folkers. She was involved in research on numerous biologic projects, one of which was a search for new antibiotics. Novobiacin was crystallized at her lab bench in Merck's research laboratory. Several other women were working in the Merck Research Lab at that time, one of whom was Helen Gager; a good friend of Fern, she went on to teaching at Sweet Briar College.
Fern was married in 1953, and lived in New York City with her husband John. She continued to work at Merck until she started her family in 1956. She subsequently lived in Moline, IL, where she lived with her husband and four children. She was active in numerous community organizations, and was a private pilot with a twin-engine rating until she became an insulin-dependent Diabetic. She was a member of the local chapter of the "99's" and flew co-pilot in the Powder Puff Derby Air Race in 1971.
Fern passed away in September 2013 after suffering from advanced Parkinson's Disease for the past several years; her family has created a collection of links and further information, available here.
Please let us know if you have other information to share about Rathe and other female chemists, pilots, and awe-inspiring women in science – we welcome your comments below!
Recent discoveries about our Women in Science (WIS) demonstrate the ways our audiences are helping us add more stories to our collections.
As a part of our on-going Women in Science Wednesdays, Effie Kapsalis has highlighted the #groundbreaking efforts of women researchers, inventors, pilots, and professors. In the past months, we have featured “Mrs. Alfred Gibson,” Dora Jean Dougherty Strother (McKeown) and Fern P. Rathe. We have also extended our experiences in crowdsourcing, uncovering more about these women’s lives from our audiences - a seriously amazing outcome, indeed!
You may recall we’ve discussed our fantastic community contributions on Flickr. These efforts helped us identify portions of SIA collections, while refining our knowledge of Smithsonian history. Now, we are excited to turn the page of our collections stories and fill in more details of these Women in Science - with a crowdsourced introduction and more details about pioneering women and Wikipedia.
Introducing Mary Wallihan Gibson.
First, on August 28, we featured an UNKNOWN Woman in Science, “Mrs. Alfred E. Gibson.” We explained that we did not know the details of her name and life – and we asked for your help. By the end of the day, we had gathered information from you in our comments and in tweets with @Smithsonian – special thanks to Erin Ryan and Penny Richards for their sleuthing and deducing.
Mrs. Alfred E. Gibson is Mary Wallihan Gibson, who graduated from the University of Denver. After marrying Alfred E. Gibson in 1910, she settled in the Cleveland, Ohio area. Here she was an active member of Pi Beta Phi, organizing gatherings and sitting on committees. She helped organized and was the first president of the Cleveland Pan-Hellenic Association.
At the time of their 1938 win of the "grand award" from the Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation, Alfred and Mary were "president and stockholder, respectively" of the Wellman Engineering Company. Their prize was $13,941.33 for their paper on "Commercial Weldery." What an achievement – and now we can put a name to her success!
Working Women in Science into Wikipedia
We have continued work in increasing representation of these women and their achievements on Wikipedia. Here are more fascinating facts about three of our Women in Science:
Featured for Women in Science Wednesdays on August 21, Dora Jean Dougherty Strother is another masterful pilot, as well as a human factors engineer. She not only set records in helicopter flight and earned the first PhD in Aviation Science from New York University, she was also a B-29 Superfortress demonstration pilot. Prior to working with Bell Helicopter, Strother served with the Women AirForce Service Pilots (WASP) and registered command over 23 different aircraft. Furthermore, she and fellow WASP Dorothea Johnson Moorman learned to fly the cumbersome B29 bomber in 1944. The aircraft was a more robust version of the Enola Gay and was considered very dangerous, even catching fire midflight for Strother. Within a limited two-week demonstration period, Strother and Moorman proved the aircraft was safe and reliable for men to fly, then trained male pilots to fly it during World War II.
We also were able to nominate Dora Jean Dougherty Strother’s Wikipedia article for the Wikipedia main page section Did You Know? It was successfully featured on Monday, September 16, 2013. Based on that main page exposure, Strother’s Wikipedia article was viewed 3817 times in one day! Her story was also expanded through efforts of other Wikipedia editors.
Furthermore, we discovered that two of our WIS worked together at the University of Chicago in the department of Zoology! Marie Agnes Hinrichs ( August 7, 2013) was an Officer of Instruction as an Assistant, while Libbie Henrietta Hyman ( June 12, 2013) served as a Research Associate in Zoology in 1919. Hinrichs later went on to earn her doctorate and moved from Research Associate in Physiology (1931) at the University of Chicago to Associate Professor and Head of the Department in Physiology and Student Health at Southern Illinois University (1938).
A resounding "Thank You" to our readers for your help and enthusiasm. We look forward to sharing more of our collections stories with you and continuing to make discoveries together!
If you have more information to share about these women or other scientists we’ve featured, please let us know in the comments. You can also help SIA build and improve Wikipedia articles for these women and our wide-ranging collections.