Bartow, Virginia (1896-1980)

Virginia Bartow
Virginia Bartow, Professor of Chemistry from 1939 to 1963, and her father Edward Bartow, professor of chemistry from 1905 to 1920, in a photograph from the 1930s.  Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives.

Professor Virginia Bartow taught chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for 37 years and played an important role at the national level in the American Chemical Society and the women’s honor society Iota Sigma Pi.  Bartow was the first woman faculty member in chemistry at Illinois, and she served as an inspiring mentor to many young chemists.

Bartow was always especially interested in the professional development of women students in chemistry and other sciences.  Each year, she hosted a dinner for them, and from 1925 until 1962, she served as the advisor to the local section of Iota Sigma Pi, the honorary society for women in chemistry.  She was the society’s national vice president in 1940 and chair of the society’s national fellowship board in 1948-1950 and 1962-1963.

Through these efforts and many others, Bartow offered special help and inspiration to young women entering the field of chemistry.  One woman later wrote “Times are changing, of course, but the female chemistry student, particularly the graduate student, sometimes gets the feeling that it’s a man’s world.  Miss Bartow’s interest in us, in class and out, and her obvious belief that we were just as able as anybody else to carve out careers made a lot of difference sometimes.... I’m sure her humanity hasn’t been confined to just the women in the department, but it probably has meant more to us.”  

Bartow was born on December 20, 1896, in Rochester, New Hampshire, the daughter of Edward and Alice Abbott Bartow.  Her father, a well-known professor of chemistry who moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1905, was the first director of the Illinois State Water Survey and served as president of the American Chemical Society in 1936.  After finishing high school, she enrolled in Vassar, where she took a course in physics in her freshman year and began taking chemistry courses as a sophomore; her other favorite subject was history.  When the time came to decide on a major subject, she chose chemistry because she liked it best.  After obtaining her A. B. degree from Vassar in 1918, she taught chemistry at Goucher College in Baltimore from 1918-1920 and then began graduate work at the University of Illinois.  She earned an M.A. degree in 1921 and a Ph. D. degree in 1923, both under Professor William Albert Noyes, one of the most distinguished chemists of his day and Head of the Chemistry Department at Illinois.  Her PhD thesis was entitled “An Attempt to Prepare an Aliphatic B-Diazo Compound.”

After obtaining her PhD degree, Bartow taught at Rockford College in Illinois from 1923-1924 and then at the University of Iowa 1924-1925 before returning to Urbana in 1925 as an instructor.  She was promoted to an associate in 1932, to an assistant professor in 1939, and to an associate professor in 1955.  In that era, women faculty members were not permitted to live alone, and were required to reside with an approved female roommate, usually another faculty member. On Sunday afternoons, Professor Bartow and her roommate would often entertain guests with tea and conversation. 

Bartow initially taught chemistry for students majoring in home economics, but was better known for her classes on the literature and history of chemistry.  The course on the literature of chemistry, the first such course in America, had been started by the chemistry department librarian Marion Sparks in 1913.  After the unexpected death of Miss Sparks in 1929, Bartow took over the course and taught it for the next 33 years.  The courses benefited from her personal acquaintance, in part through her father, with many of the leading chemists worldwide.  One of the students in these courses said, “Bartow had a clear idea that systematic exposure to the literature and history of the science added something useful and long term to one’s education.  Among other ways, she prepared displays using postage stamps and her own chart of academic genealogy as painless ways to learn history.”  Alumni regularly commented about how much Bartow’s class in chemical literature meant to them, how valuable her counsel had been, and what a remarkable teacher she was.

Alumnus Marion O’Leary (BS, 1963) said generations of Chemistry at Illinois students learned about the culture of chemistry—its literature and its history—from Dr. Bartow.

"Her long connection with Illinois gave her insight not only into the larger world of chemistry, but into the immediate world of UIUC. She had personally experienced much of the department’s history up to that point. Her own Ph.D. was with William Albert Noyes, and her father was on the committee that recruited him. Her stories were legendary. Her approach to the chemical literature was comprehensive and unforgiving. I learned to use Beilstein by learning the Beilstein classification system, not by learning to use the indices. I learned about how one interleaved searches of the early literature between Chemical Abstracts and Chemisches Zentralblatt. They were amazingly demanding courses. She was a lonely figure—one of two women in the Chemistry Department. She was also an historian/bibliophile among a large cadre of experimental scientists. But she made her mark on so many of us."

One of the results of the history of chemistry course was her ‘chemical genealogy,’ in which she traced the intellectual lineages of Illinois faculty members back to the 1700s.  Each person was linked to their scientific mentor, and then to their mentor’s mentor, etc., to form an academic analog of a family tree.  Bartow’s publication of her pioneering chemical genealogy in 1939 has inspired similar efforts at many other universities worldwide. 

Bartow was chair of the History of Chemistry division of the American Chemical Society in 1952-4, and chair of the local section of the ACS in 1952-3.  She was the editor of three comprehensive decennial reports of the Chemistry Department at Illinois, in 1941, 1951, and 1961.  She retired in 1962.  For her achievements, in 1976 she was awarded an honorary membership in Sigma Delta Epsilon, the professional society for graduate women in science.

Her other interests extended beyond science to the arts. She enjoyed musical concerts and collecting stamps and made several gifts to the university’s museums:  a gift of two rare flint glass tumblers in 1978 and a gift of a number of couturier gowns to the University’s historic costume collection.  She died on July 7, 1980 in Douglas, Michigan, where she had a summer home, and is buried in Fishkill, New York.

Articles and Bulletins published by Virgina Bartow

1.      “William Albert Noyes: An Appreciation,” Alpha Chi Sigma Zeta Ion, 1937, 3(1), 1.

2.      “Women in Chemistry - An Historical Survey,” Sigma Delta Epsilon News, 1937, 3(1), 6.

3.      “Richard Watson, Eighteenth Century Chemist and Clergyman,” J. Chem. Educ. 1938, 15, 103.

4.      “Chemical Genealogy,” J. Chem. Educ. 1939, 16, 236.

5.      “Opportunities for Women in Chemistry,” Trans. Ill. Acad. Sci., 1940, 33, 98.

6.      “Developments in the Chemistry Department, University of Illinois, 1926-1941,” Bull. Dept. Chem. Univ. Ill. Urbana Ill., 1941.

7.      “The Reference Literature of Organic Chemistry,” in Degering, E. F., An Outline of Organic Chemistry, Barnes and Noble: N. Y., 4th Ed., 1941, Chap. 36; 5th Ed., 1947, Chap. 37; 6th Ed., 1957, Chap. 37

8.      “W. F. Hillebrand and Some Early Letters,” J. Chem. Educ. 1949, 26, 367.

9.      “Axel Fredrick Cronstedt,” J. Chem. Educ. 1953, 30, 247.

10.  “Comments on the History of Chemistry,” Iotan, 1953, 13(1), 14.

11.  “The Chemistry Department, 1941-1950,” Bull. Chem. Dept. Univ. Ill. Urbana Ill., 1952.

12.  “Philosophical Studies of the Duchess of Newcastle,” J. Chem. Educ. 1957, 34, 82.

13.  “History and Literature for Pleasure and Profit,” Iotan, 1959, 18, 6.

14.  “Pioneer Personalities in Borane Chemistry” Adv. Chem. Ser. 1961, 32, 5.

15.  “The First 55 Years of the University of Illinois Section of the American Chemical Society,”  1961; unpublished manuscript;

16.  “The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering: History and Development, 1951-1961,” Bull. Chem. Dept. Univ. Ill. Urbana Ill., 1962.

Encyclopedia entries written by Virginia Bartow

 1.      “John Howard Northrop,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1956, vol. 16, p. 535.

2.       “Otto Wallach,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1956, vol. 23, p. 305.

3.      “Sir Walter Norman Haworth,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1957, vol. 11, p. 276.

4.      “Richard Kuhn,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1957, vol. 11, p. 513.

5.      “F. K. Beilstein,” Encyclopedia of Chemistry, G. L. Clark, Ed., Reinhold: N.Y., 1957, p. 130.

6.      “J. J. Berzelius,” Encyclopedia of Chemistry, G. L. Clark, Ed., Reinhold: N.Y., 1957, p. 133.

7.      “Chemical History,” Encyclopedia of Chemistry, G. L. Clark, Ed., Reinhold: N.Y., 1957, p. 234.

8.      “August W. Hofmann,” Encyclopedia of Chemistry, G. L. Clark, Ed., Reinhold: N.Y., 1957, p. 472.

9.      “D. I. Mendeleef,” Encyclopedia of Chemistry, G. L. Clark, Ed., Reinhold: N.Y., 1957, p. 583.

10.  “W. H. Perkin,” Encyclopedia of Chemistry, G. L. Clark, Ed., Reinhold: N.Y., 1957, p. 713.

11.  “C. W. Scheele,” Encyclopedia of Chemistry, G. L. Clark, Ed., Reinhold: N.Y., 1957, p. 846.

12.  “Peter P. Von Weimarn,” Encyclopedia of Chemistry, Reinhold: N.Y., 1958 (supplement), p. 306.

13.  “Paul Karrer,” Encyclopedia of Chemistry, G. L. Clark, Ed., Reinhold: N.Y., 1958 (supplement), p. 160.

14.   “J. Alexander” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, vol. 1, p. 574.

15.  “Christopher Kelk Ingold,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, vol. 12, p.354.

16.  “A. J. Balard,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1960, vol. 2, p. 957.

17.  “J. N. Bronsted,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1960, vol. 4, p. 237.

18.  “A. M. Butlerov,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1960, vol. 4, p. 467.

19.  “A. S. Couper,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1960, vol, 5, p. 597B.

20.  “J. W. Dobereiner,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1960, vol. 7, p. 464.

21.  “K. Fajans,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1960, vol. 9, p. 41.

22.  “R. Fittig,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1960, vol. 9, p. 332.

23.  “N. V. Sidgwick,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1960, vol. 20, p.614.

24.  “I. Traube,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1960, vol. 22, p. 443.

25.  “R. Fittig,” The Harper Encyclopedia of Sciences, 1961.

26.  “Sir W. N. Haworth,” The Harper Encyclopedia of Sciences, 1961.

27.  “P. Karrer,” The Harper Encyclopedia of Sciences, 1961.

28.  “R. Kuhn,” The Harper Encyclopedia of Sciences, 1961.

29.  “N. Leblanc,” The Harper Encyclopedia of Sciences, 1961.

30.  “Alexander Smith,” The Harper Encyclopedia of Sciences, 1961.

 Reviews written by Virginia Bartow

 1.      “Library Guide for the Chemist, by Byron A. Soule” J. Chem. Educ. 1938, 15, 597; Chem. Met. Eng., 1938, 46, 36.

2.      “A History of Chemistry, by F. J. Moore, revised by W. T. Hall,” J. Am. Chem. Soc., 1940, 62, 235.

3.      “Chemical Publications, Their Nature and Use, 2nd Ed., by M. G. Mellon” J. Chem. Educ. 1940, 17, 600.

4.      “The Library Key: An Aid in Using Books and Libraries. 4th Ed., revised, by Z. Brown,” J. Chem. Educ. 1941, 18, 350.

5.      “Textbook of Chemistry, by Albert L. Elder,” Sch. Sci. Math., 1941, 41, 702.

6.      “Fundamentals of Semi-Micro Qualitative Analysis, by E. B. Kelsey and H. G. Dietrich,” Sch. Sci. Math, 1941, 41, 900.

7.      “Intermediate Chemical Calculations, by J. R. Partington and K. Stratton,” Sch. Sci. Math., 1941, 41, 901.

8.      “The Second Yearbook of Research and Statistical Methodology, by Oscar Krisen Buros, ed.” J. Chem. Educ. 1942, 19, 100.

9.      “Elementary Laboratory Experiments in Organic Chemistry, by Roger Adams and J. R. Johnson,” Sch. Sci. Math, 1942, 42, 303.

10.  “Principles of General Chemistry, 3rd Ed., by S. R. Brinkley,” Sch. Sci. Math, 1942, 42, 306.

11.  “A Chemical-Technical Dictionary (German-English-French-Russian), First American Edition, by A. W. Mayer,” Sch. Sci. Math., 1944, 44, 91.

12.  “Chymia, Annual Studies in the History of Chemistry, Vol. 1, by T. L. Davis, ed.,” J. Chem. Educ., 1948, 25, 583.

13.  “Thomas Jefferson, Scientist, by E. T. Martin.” Chem. Eng. News, 1952, 30, 2244.

14.  “A Source Book in Chemistry: 1400-1900, by Henry M. Leicester, and Herbert S. Klickstein,” J. Chem. Educ. 1953, 30, 46.

15.  “Chemical Effects of Electricity (Film Review),” J. Chem. Educ., 1955, 32, 649.

16.  “A Guide to the Literature of Chemistry, 2nd Ed., by E. J. Crane, A. M. Patterson, and Eleanor B. Marr,” J. Chem. Educ. 1957, 34, 576.

17.  “Chemical Publications: Their Nature and Use, 3rd Ed., by M. G. Mellon” J. Chem. Educ. 1958, 35, 582.

18.  “A Short Guide to Chemical Literature, by G. Malcolm Dyson” J. Chem. Educ. 1960, 37, A106; J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1960, 82, 251.


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