Chemists in the Collections

Today was the kickoff of the International Year of Chemistry 2011, and so we wanted to take the chance to introduce you to some of the chemists from our collections featured on the Smithsonian’s Flickr Commons.

Our Flickr Commons sets are filled with photos both of chemistry greats that even the non-scientifically inclined among us celebrated in grade-school textbooks, and lesser known individuals that have nevertheless had an impact on the field.

Here’s a rundown of a few of my favorites from the slideshow above:

  • Louis Pasteur—French chemist and microbiologist we all know for his breakthroughs in germ theory, pioneering studies on crystal asymmetry, and perhaps most importantly (at least in my opinion), pasteurization: the primary reason we can all drink milk, wine, and beer without getting sick.
  • Margaret D. Foster—American chemist who was the first woman to work for the United States Geological Survey, and who completed important research for the Manhattan Project.
  • Wilhelm Ostwald—Baltic German chemist and Nobel Prize winner among those typically credited with being the modern founders of the field of physical chemistry, Ostwald also was a passionate amateur painter whose work in color theory influenced the likes of Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian (who knew!).
  • Irène Joliot-Curie—Although often overshadowed by the work of her mother, Irène was equally as brilliant, winning a joint Nobel Prize with her husband in 1935 for her contributions to chemistry on new radioactive elements.

And since in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Chemistry Nobel Prize awarded to Madame Marie Curie, the International Year of Chemistry 2011 will celebrate the contributions of women to science, I would especially like to call out the ladies in this group. Some are famous, but it is also the work of relative unknowns, such as Jane Blankenship Gibson—a chemist who was recognized for her homemaking as much as her science during a time when women were still relatively rare fixtures in science labs, and yet who pursued her passion anyway, paving the path for women in the sciences today.

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