Fern P. Rathe: Navigating the Lab and the Skies

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.

Fern P. Rathe, Karl August Folkers, and Edward Anthony Kaczka. Accession 90-105 - Science Service, R

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.

Fern on Graduation Day, 1952, Rathe Family Collection.

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 Rathe: Twin Engine Pilot, 1971, Rathe Family Collection

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!

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