We’ve all likely heard the saying at one point or another: “The future is female.” But as enterprises and educational institutions look forward by ramping up efforts to encourage STEM accessibility and recruit women scientists, they often miss the impact of the past. Case in point? Chemist Mary Elliott Hill. One of the first African American women to become a chemist — and likely the first to receive a master’s degree — this female trailblazer both advanced the cause of science and helped to encourage other young women to pursue STEM careers.
However, chances are you’ve never heard her story. So, here is a look at the remarkable life and work of Mary Elliott Hill.
A Brief History of Mary Elliot Hill
Born in 1907 in the segregated town of South Mills, North Carolina to Frances Bass and Robert Elliott, Mary Elliott Hill didn’t have the easiest path into physical science. But persistence paid off: In 1925, she began attending what is now Virginia State University (VSU), and in 1929, she earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Along the way, she met and married fellow chemist Carl McClellan Hill, and by 1930 she was teaching at VSU’s Laboratory High School. Then, 1937 saw her becoming a full-time faculty member at the Hampton Institute, and after taking graduate classes during the summer at the University of Pennsylvania, Hill became the first female chemist to earn her master’s degree in 1941.
From 1944 to 1962, she was a chemistry professor at Tennessee A&I State College. In 1962, she moved with her husband to Frankfort, Kentucky, where he was appointed president of Kentucky State University and she worked as a professor. The pair teamed up to work on multiple projects over the years — her analytical work in ultraviolet spectophotometry helped to develop methods that allowed for more precise tracking of progress in chemical reactions.
Keen on Ketenes
Hill specialized in two branches of chemistry: organic and analytical. Organic chemistry focuses on the study of molecules and compounds that make up life — such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. It explores how these molecules interact and what new molecules can be created. Meanwhile, analytical chemistry looks to identify and quantify materials in a mixture, both by adapting existing process and creating new methodologies for new compounds.
Hill’s expertise in both disciplines drove her work on ketenes. These are colorless and toxic gasses made of two carbon molecules and one oxygen, along with two other molecules from monovalent chemical groups. They are also soluble in nearly all organic solvents. The most common ketene is ethenone, which sees two hydrogen molecules attached to the carbon and oxygen. Work with ketenes isn’t easy; they’re described as a having a “penetrating” odor and are highly reactive and unstable. As a result, ketene research during Hill’s time was limited by challenges in accurately tracking reaction progress and measuring its impact.
However, her expertise in analytical chemistry made it possible for the Hill to determine the solubility of components in non-aqueous solutions, in turn improving their ability to identify and quantify products. This work helped to underpin the development of ketene polymerization, which is instrumental in the synthesis and production of plastics.
Leadership Beyond the Lab
While Hill’s work in developing ketene analysis via ultraviolet spectophotometry helped to set the stage for further scientific development, she was also a female trailblazer outside the lab. To help encourage other African American women to pursue STEM careers, she created student chapters of the American Chemical Societies at multiple schools where she taught; her work as both a mentor and professor helped more than 20 of her students find careers in chemistry. In addition, she was a member of the Alpha Cappa Alpha National Honor Society, the Tennessee Academy of Science and the National Institute of Science.
Hill also wrote several textbooks with her husband and co-authored more than 40 scientific papers, but despite her expertise and experience, she was never listed as the senior author. She noted that during her time as a professor and researcher, more women were becoming interested in STEM careers and the role of the female chemist, but many chose other options when it became clear that research environments remained largely out of reach. Hill passed away in 1969, having blazed a trail as a chemist, leader and scientific innovator.
Action and Reaction
Chemists continue to push the envelope of what’s possible, what’s probable and what has untapped potential. For example, researchers at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittneberg (MLU) have created a set of new and inexpensive catalysts capable of taking the place of those based on gold or platinum to facilitate alkyne reactions. Meanwhile, work from the University of Buffalo has uncovered a way to transform sugar into hydrocarbons, which could help power the cars of the future.
But this kind of scientific status quo shattering wouldn’t be possible without the hard work of female chemists and trailblazers like Mary Elliott Hill. Put simply? To get where we’re going, we need to know where we’ve been — and who helped us get here along the way.
Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery in science, technology, and engineering.