Today, a woman doesn't quite get the Nobel Prize.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created Them.
In 1913, Swiss chemist
Alfred Werner won the Nobel Prize for explaining
something Louis Pasteur had pointed out. Pasteur
had found two crystalline salts with exactly the
same chemical makeup. One bent polarized light to
the left, the other bent it to the right. One salt
seemed to be left-handed, the other, right-handed.
In 1897, Werner claimed that the molecular
arrangements in such molecules had to be mirror
images of each other. He also claimed that a huge
class of molecules had mirror images like that.
Other chemists laughed at him -- said he was
Finally, in 1911, an American student did a
terribly complex sequence of processes that
produced right and left-handed cobalt-based salts
for Werner. When other chemists saw that, their
resistance broke down. Two years later, Werner had
the Nobel Prize.
So far, this makes a fairly conventional story of
scientific discovery. But chemist Ivan Bernal has
found the oddest wrinkle in it. He picks up the
tale just after Werner first made his claims.
Around 1898, a remarkable young woman named Edith
Humphrey came from England to do her doctorate with
An English woman doing doctoral work in chemistry
in a foreign university was unheard-of a century
ago. But Humphrey was no ordinary woman. She became
Werner's first woman Ph.D.
She did her dissertation on the same cobalt salt
crystals that American would synthesize ten years
later. But she did it without all that fancy
processing. In the course of her work she prepared
many crystals and left them with Werner, carefully
marked, in a box. And there they sat for 86 years.
Then Bernal heard about them and predicted they
would have the necessary left/right optical
property. Sure enough, Humphrey's crystals showed
exactly the same behavior Pasteur had seen. Werner
had his validation right there, and he'd missed it.
Meanwhile Werner had sent that American all around
the mulberry bush recreating Humphrey's crystals.
Bernal points out that his work was completely
unnecessary because her crystals already had
sufficient purity. Worse yet, Werner idolized
Pasteur and was completely aware of his use of
polarized light. Yet he'd never thought to shine
polarized light through Edith Humphrey's crystals.
If he had, the matter would've been settled in
Edith Humphrey went back to England and lived to
the age of 102. She set up a research laboratory
for a British dye and fabric company. She was its
chief chemist. If she or Werner had only thought to
test her crystals, she might've had part of a Nobel
Prize as well. But she died just before Bernal
figured that out. She died without ever knowing --
just how close she had come.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Bernal, I., A Sketch of the Life of Edith Humphrey, A
Pioneer Inorganic Chemist Who Barely Missed Proving
Werner's Theory of Coordination Chemistry a Decade
Before It Was Eventually Demonstrated Correct.
Chemical Intelligencer, January 1999, pp.
I am grateful to Ivan Bernal, UH Chemistry
Department, for suggesting this topic and for
providing considerable counsel.
For more on chirality and mirror imaging, see
Episodes 604 and 1184.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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