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Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry


Women in World War I

(adapted from The Chemists’ War 1914 – 1918)

The total war of 1914-1918 required the mobilisation of women chemists, many of whom were employed in schools and universities.  In the second half of the 19th century, women chemists in Britain, as elsewhere in the world, were few and far between compared with their male counterparts.  

Women scientists contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways, not least in the production of fine chemicals in university and industrial laboratories.  Here are some of their stories: 

May Sybil Leslie 

May Sybil Leslie is one of the unsung champions of WWI chemistry.  Born in Yorkshire, she graduated in 1908 with a first class honours degree in chemistry at Leeds University and carried out research on physical chemistry at the university.  She then won a scholarship to spend 2 years working at the Radium Institute in Paris with Marie Curie.

Leslie’s research at the institute focused on the extraction of elements from ores containing thorium, a radioactive element.  She then carried out research in Manchester on the radioactivity of thorium and actinium, working with Ernest Rutherford, who had won the 1908 Nobel prize in chemistry.

Leslie’s war work started in 1915 when the government hired her to carry out research into the chemistry involved in the manufacture of nitric acid.  Her work enabled nitric acid to be produced on an industrial scale much more efficiently.  Large quantities were required to manufacture the vast amounts of explosives needed by the munitions industry for the war effort.  

Leslie was awarded a doctorate by the University of Leeds in recognition of her research on radioactivity and her contributions to the large scale manufacture of nitric acid and explosives, which ‘contributed effectively towards the solution of urgent technical problems.’  Neverthless, when male chemists returned from the war, Leslie was relieved of her government appointment.  

Martha Annie Whiteley

Martha Annie Whiteley had received a doctor of science degree from the University of London in 1902.  In the years leading up to the war, Whiteley carried out research on organic acids and related compounds and by the time the war started had been promoted to chemistry lecturer at Imperial College.  

When the British government embarked on a crash programme to produce synthetic and naturally-occurring pharmaceuticals, anaesthetics, dyes and other fine chemicals previously imported from Germany, Whiteley gathered together a team of women chemists, who collaborated with Jocelyn Field Thorpe, then professor of organic chemistry at Imperial College.  The team worked on the synthesis of anaesthetics and drugs needed for military hospitals, including the local anaesthetics beta-eucaine and novocaine, and the analgesic phenacetin.  

The women chemists also analysed samples of flares, explosives, and chemical warfare agents collected from the battlefields.  

Muriel Robertson

Muriel Robertson, a zoologist, worked at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, London, on the problem of gas gangrene.  Gas gangrene is the death and decay of wounded body tissue infected by several species of clostridial bacteria found in the soil.  The infection results in the release of toxins and the production of gases inside the infected body tissue.  Her work focused on preparing an antitoxin to treat the infection-- ‘an aim realised only by the end of the war.”  She also worked on finding a tetanus antitoxin.  The death rate among tetanus cases in home military hospitals in Britain fell from almost 60% at the beginning of the war to about 20% from June 1917 onwards, probably due to the introduction of prophylactic tetanus antitoxin injections in late 1914.  

Marie Curie

In 1914, Marie Curie was in the process of establishing the Radium Institute, now the Curie Institute in Paris.  Curie soon became an enthusiastic advocate of the use of radiography, a technique that was then in its infancy.  There was little provision for it in military hospitals at the beginning of the war.  Assisted by her daughter Irène, Marie began to organise X-ray services to assist medical staff locate broken bones, bullets and shrapnel in wounded soldier.  She set up some twenty mobile radiology trucks, later to become known as ‘petite Curies”.  The machines used radon as a source of radiation.

After the war

Before the war women were tolerated in male professions and perceived as curiosities rather than threats.  During the war, professional women carried out a significant portion of skilled work.  When the war ended and the men returned to their professions, women were seen as a threat to jobs.  Many were dismissed from their posts and discrimination against women increased.

About the author

Science writer Dr Michael Freemantle delivered a lecture in the Chemistry Department last September on the role of chemists in World War I. He has written a number of books and numerous news reports and articles on chemistry, the history of chemistry, and related topics. He is the author of: An Introduction to Ionic Liquids, RSC Publishing, 2009; and Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War, The History Press, 2012. The above piece is based on the chapter “Women’s Contributions” from his latest book The Chemists’ War 1914 – 1918, RSC Publishing 2013, with his kind permission.  The book is available at bookstores and through Amazon.  


Muriel Robertson fishing for leeches, courtesy of The Wellcome Library, London

Women-only chemistry laboratory at Newnham College, courtesy of the Principal and Fellows, Newnham College, Cambridge