Department History

This history of Wellesley’s Chemistry Department is an attempt to understand the development of a women’s liberal arts college science department in the context of relevant external factors during the period 1875-2000. 

We have divided the study into four eras, named after the four buildings at Wellesley in which chemistry was taught during these years. For a thorough history, please read "125 Years in the Chemistry Department at Wellesley College: 1875-2000," from which all contents of this page was extracted.

College Hall Era "Chemistry Building" Era Pendleton Hall Era Science Center Era

College Hall Era: 1875-1893

College HallIn 1875 ten years had passed since the end of the Civil War, and the United States was in a period of high optimism and economic expansion resulting, in part, from the implementation of the industrial revolution.

Federal funding for science was virtually non-existent.  During the Civil War, the Union Army had benefited from earlier research supported by the federal government on the development of weapons with interchangeable parts.  Aside from this, growth in agriculture had been the only beneficiary of federal funding for “science.”   Basic research in science, when supported at all, “was supported by organized philanthropies created during the economic expansion that followed the Civil War.”


Chemistry in College HallThe American Chemical Society was about to be born in 1876, following discussions at an 1874 Priestley Centennial meeting (at which the 3 women attendees did not appear in the official photograph).   Most professional chemists “did routine testing for industrial concerns, performing analyses based upon classical gravimetric and volumetric methods.” Our modern ideas of atomic structure were decades away.  In most colleges little provision had been made for teaching chemistry by 1875. While the years after the Civil War “marked a time of transition for chemical instruction, from ideas rooted in natural philosophy courses to methods drawn from new ideas in research science,” change came slowly at the college level.   For example, in the mid-1870’s only the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia reported laboratory work in organic chemistry.

Only about 1% of the eligible population attended college in 1875.   For women at that time, higher education was available at a few “female seminaries,” such as Mt. Holyoke, founded in 1837, at Vassar College, founded in 1865, at one or two coeducational colleges, such as Oberlin, which had admitted women  since 1833, and, beginning in 1870, at a few state universities such as the University of Michigan.


"Chemistry Building" Era: 1894-1935  

World and national events during the next forty year period that had an obvious impact on Wellesley’s Chemistry Department include the “Great War,” World War I, which lasted from 1914 until 1918 (although the U.S.’s involvement was only for the final year of the war).  In addition, the changing expectations for women that followed the war, as well as the economic Depression that began with the crash of the stock market in 1929, had a serious impact on Wellesley College students and faculty.

Although by the end of the nineteenth century “professional scientists began to staff the universities, and private research institutions became more favorably disposed to research in pure science”    most “academic scientists remained suspicious of federal support for science well into the 1930’s.”   Thus, colleges like Wellesley remained dependent on internal funds or private gifts for the support of science education and research.

In 1906 Congress passed the Food and Drug Act, opening career possibilities (but rarely for women) based on the study of organic chemistry as well as food analysis and bacteriology.   (Wellesley began teaching Air, Water and Food Analysis in 1901.) Wellesley was no longer a rarity in emphasizing laboratory work, as by the beginning of the 20th century, “virtually all chemistry courses included laboratory work.”

The early Wellesley students were pioneers, serious about their academic purpose and expecting to follow college with a career, usually in teaching.  Between 1900 and 1920, however, it became “fashionable” for young women to attend college, and many no longer wanted to sacrifice a social life and marriage to a career.  As mentioned previously, low marriage rates for college-educated women sparked a national debate, of which Wellesley became the focus in 1915.

Curriculum and Instruction in the Chemistry Department

In the years between 1895 and 1927 the Chemistry Department offered from 7 to 11 courses, and between 1927 and 1935 from 13 to 15 courses, some of which were semester courses and some year courses.   In 1896, for example, the Calendar listed

  • General Chemistry (one course)
  • Qualitative Analysis (two courses)
  • Quantitative Analysis (two courses)
  • Organic Chemistry (two courses, including an advanced course with laboratory work in organic preparation),
  • Theoretical Chemistry (one course)
  • Stereochemistry and Thermal Chemistry (one course -- withdrawn that year).


Pendleton Hall Era: 1936-1975   

Chemistry in Pendleton Hall

The world became increasingly interconnected, and the role of the United States in world events grew dramatically during this period.  Thus, it is difficult to select just a few local, national and world events that significantly affected the Chemistry Department at Wellesley College.  However, the department was undoubtedly affected by World War II and its social and technological aftermath, the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the U.S. involvement in the war in Viet Nam.

It was during this period, particularly after 1945, that science policy and the support for science by the government and other foundations underwent revolutionary changes.  According to Bruce Smith, in “American Science Policy Since World War II,” while “most of the pieces that make up today’s research system were in place” before World War I, the leaders of science continued to resist government support, fearing interference with the freedom of scientific inquiry.   However, the Depression of the 1930’s brought hard times to colleges and universities, causing a split among the ranks of the scientific leadership with respect to government support. Government agencies for science (the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, NIH, NCI) already existed or were created during this period.  By the end of the Depression, the Works Progress Administration “routinely awarded research contracts to universities.”

Vannevar Bush, formerly of M.I.T., led the Office of Science Research and Development in the White House during World War II.  According to Smith, Bush believed that an agency independent of the White House should be established, one that could operate more flexibly. A consensus emerged after World War II that the government would have to assume responsibility for nurturing basic scientific research. In 1945 a report entitled “Science—the Endless Frontier” was presented to President Harry S. Truman.  This report, which emphasized the importance of basic research, argued not just for “big” science, but also that institutions with smaller programs should be supported.   Thus the National Science Foundation was born in 1948, but not without the setback of a Presidential veto of the original 1947 proposal, supposedly because no official responsible to the President would have been involved.

Federal support for research and development grew 14% annually in constant dollars between 1953 and 1961.  In addition, “[T]he 1957 Sputnik launches ensured increased R&D spending for a decade afterwards.”   Following this first golden age of science, however, societal trends with negative impacts on government support of science emerged during the next decade.  Smith describes the struggles of those responsible for science policy in the face of one of them:

Intellectual ferment in the colleges and universities during the late 1960’s raised nettlesome issues for scientists. Anti-elitism, minority [and women’s] access to careers, the rights of human subjects in research and the public’s right to hold private centers of power and privilege accountable were cherished notions of liberal champions of social reform.  But when directed against the universities themselves, reformist ideas had worrisome consequences.

And while Sputnik had launched tremendous and important support for training and research in science, by the late 1960’s science and engineering Ph.D.’s began to flood the labor market.

The professionalization of chemists reached maturity during this period.  In response to this, in 1936 the American Chemical Society began to study “the complex problems of determining standards and devising means for evaluating professional training in chemistry at the bachelor’s level.”   In addition, the study and practice of chemistry in the years after World War II saw the introduction of technology that was the direct result of wartime research and development.  “New techniques such as gas chromatography, colorimetry, and ultraviolet, infrared, NMR, and microwave spectroscopy appeared in the laboratories.  Advanced mathematical tools made calculus not only a requirement, but a fundamental part of chemical education.”

Women’s lives, their opportunities and expectations, changed dramatically throughout this period.  As we shall see, World War II gave women unprecedented employment opportunities.  But when the veterans of the war returned home and flooded the labor market, women were expected to return to their homes and devote themselves to raising families, perhaps to an even greater extent than during the preceding decades.  During the 1960’s this trend began to reverse itself, as women’s “consciousness” began to be raised through books, articles, and discussion groups.  The “women’s movement” increased in strength during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and, along with the civil rights movement, changed this nation dramatically.  Among other results of the women’s movement was a breakdown of the expectation that women could have a career OR a family, but not both.

Science Center Era: 1976-2000     

Science Center

For the last quarter-century we have been living in a time of ever-expanding dependence upon and opportunities (and challenges) created by advances in technology, particularly computer technology.  Among the many results of these advances has been a revolution in communication and access to information.  The globalization of research, development and commerce (not to mention politics) about which we often speak would not have been possible without these newly developed communication pathways.  In addition, particularly during the last decade, this has been a time of unprecedented affluence, with its resulting impact on colleges such as Wellesley that depend upon the generosity of others.

Government support for basic science, shaken during the Viet Nam War, was strengthened again.  Between 1965 and 1984 federal obligations for plant, facilities and large equipment in colleges and universities, as well as graduate fellowships, were substantially reduced, affecting smaller and “developing” institutions more dramatically than the most highly ranked graduate Chemistry departments, for example.   However, by the 1980’s high levels of federal support were re-established. Grants for faculty research, as well as student training and equipment, have become much more available during this period.  Thanks to the work of such organizations as the Council for Undergraduate Research, both the NSF and NIH have created programs aimed at non-Ph.D. granting institutions.

The state of the chemistry profession has depended heavily upon the influences just described.  Although employment opportunities for chemists have increased, changes in corporate culture have affected the career paths of chemists involved in industrial research.  While opportunities for women have become more abundant, no longer can anyone automatically expect to be employed at the same company throughout her/his career.  The expansion of academic institutions that had created many faculty positions in the post-World War II period slowed, and during the 1980’s many public college and university systems underwent major cutbacks.  Furthermore, the lifting of the mandatory retirement age introduced an uncertainty into the formerly more predictable turnover in positions.

The situation for women was epitomized at Wellesley’s Commencement this past June.  On that occasion, television journalist Lynn Sherr ’63 felt that she had to remind the graduating seniors that the wealth of opportunities they take for granted was not always there.  She adjured them to remember the feminists who preceded them and not to be embarrassed to call themselves feminists.  Indeed, faculty members teaching during the last 25 years have encountered a student body who come to college expecting to pursue careers after graduation, and who view their college years as preparatory for the rest of their working lives.  While this attitude has been virtually universal among male college students for the past century, female students, as we have seen, have not always had such expectations.


Contact Us

Department of Chemistry
Science Center
Wellesley College
106 Central Street
Wellesley, MA 02481


Adele Wolfson
Department Chair
Tel: 781.283.3106
Fax: 781.283.3642


Deborah Nickerson
Administrative Assistant
Tel: 781.283.3114
Fax: 781.283.3642


Karen Blake
Administrative Assistant
Tel: 781.283.3022
Fax: 781.283.3642