This March, we recognize a few of the many individuals whose lives and work have inspired and promoted the development of women in the chemical sciences.
When alumna Yulan Tong (MS, ’58; PhD, ’61) studied organic chemistry at Illinois in the late 1950s, she was the only woman in that division.
“I had a wonderful experience at Illinois. The professors and fellow students were all gentlemen and ladies. They were all very helpful.”
Unfortunately, visiting speakers weren't always so professional. “One started off saying LADY and gentlemen, another saw me and said: ‘Oh, we had a lady today and I have to change my joke.’” Tong's reaction? “I kept a straight face and pretended not getting the bad jokes. As they could not embarrass me, they usually lost interest to continue.”
Tong studied under Dr. Nelson Leonard and went on to a career with Dow Chemical after receiving her PhD in 1961. Forty years later, Tong decided to give back to Illinois, providing a seed donation (matched by Dow) to launch the first Sylvia M. Stoesser Lecture in Chemistry in 2000.
As Dow’s first woman chemical researcher, Sylvia Stoesser (1901-1991) was a pioneer for women in chemistry. After an 11-year career, during which she was awarded 39 patents, Stoesser left Dow in 1940 to raise her daughter. But she remained active in the field, serving as a consultant for Dow and publishing the definitive work on styrene in 1952.
Stoesser’s story inspired Tong, who established the lecture series in her honor. “I felt her story was a good example. She was forced to resign when she had her first baby, but she was good and Dow had to have her back as a consultant. Most likely, she made things easier for those of us who followed her. A lot of things have changed, but a lot need to be changed still.”
The Stoesser lectures highlight women who can serve as role models for female students. Additionally, while lectures often focus on the experiences of those in traditional academic careers, the Stoesser series features speakers who have been successful in the chemical field outside of academia.
We are grateful for the leadership and generosity of Dr. Tong, who endowed the lecture series in 2015, ensuring its continuation in perpetuity.