The first women chemists at Cal

February 5, 2018

150 Years of Women at Berkeley

One of the important legacies of the UC system is that women were admitted two years after the university’s founding in 1870. The regents had unanimously passed a resolution to admit women who at the time made up around 36% of the state’s population. The University Registrar announcement was clearly meant to encourage them to attend: “Young Ladies are admitted into the University on equal terms, in all respects with young men.” 

Agnes Fay Morgan, Judith Klinman and Darleane Hoffman

But the hiring of women faculty, especially in the sciences, was a long way behind women student attendance.  The first woman chemist arrived on campus in 1915. Professor Agnes Fay Morgan had a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Chicago which she received in 1914. However, she was hired as a professor in the Home Economics Department where she went on to pioneer biochemical research in vitamins and the understanding of how the human body processes food. The first woman physical scientist, hired into the College of Chemistry, came in 1978 with the arrival of Professor Judith Klinman. Klinman is internationally renowned for her research into enzyme catalysis. Professor Darleane Hoffman was the next tenured faculty member to come in 1984 from the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and the fourth female chemist on campus. (Professor Angelica Stacy was the third chemist arriving as an assistant professor in 1983. Since 2001, she has served as the first Associate Vice Provost for the Faculty.) Hoffman continued her ground breaking scientific research into radioactive elements at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory during her tenure.

These women were pioneers, both as scientists and faculty members, helping pave the way for the next generations of women faculty and students.  Follows are summaries of their research and award highlights from their amazing careers.

Agnes Fay Morgan (active 1915-1954)

Agnes Fay MorganDr. Agnes Fay Morgan, (1884 – 1968) Professor Emerita Nutrition and Biochemist Emerita, Agricultural Experimentation Station, was a pioneer among women in American science. Morgan came to UC Berkeley's faculty in 1915. The next year, she became a founding co-chair of the Department of Home Economics. Two years later she was sole chair of the new Department of Household Science, within UC Berkeley's College of Agriculture.

When she came to interview at Berkeley, she was scheduled with the college's dean, but he sent his wife and teenage daughter to conduct it for him. She accepted the Berkeley job, which was housed in the Department of Home Economics. The position paid $1,800; male faculty members at the university were paid $2,400 with a doctorate and $1,800 without one. Morgan had received her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1914.

When Morgan arrived at Berkeley, she found that she had to teach courses in nutrition and dietetics. Despite her chemistry background, she characterized dietetics as "a subject I knew nothing about and nobody else knew much about at that time." She had to research the curriculum "mostly out of German medical journals." Her goal became to debunk, through scientific research methods, myths about common household customs of cookery, clean living and good order, and in that way promote sound practices in this "tradition-bound arena".   

Some of the most significant scientific research to emerge from Morgan's laboratory concerned the biochemistry of vitamins and the nutritional value of foods. She became best known for her work examining the effects of pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) on adrenal gland function. In her early research work, Morgan analyzed processed foods and characterized their vitamin composition. She was the first to establish that a preservative, sulfur dioxide, protected vitamin C but damaged thiamine.

In 1938, the Department of Home Economics was moved under the College of Agriculture, and all of the faculty members became affiliated with the California Agricultural Experiment Station. Late in her career, she was involved in an Agricultural Experiment Station project that examined nutrition among older people in San Mateo County. That work yielded two important conclusions: that bone density began to decline in women between the ages of 50 and 65, and that dietary fat intake led to increases in serum cholesterol.

Morgan received the Garvan Medal in 1949, which is bestowed upon outstanding women in chemistry by the American Chemical Society. In 1954, Morgan and Wayne State University researcher Arthur H. Smith were the co-winners of the Borden Research Award from the Borden Company Foundation.

Judith Klinman (active 1978 - present)

Dr. Judith Klinman

Professor of the Graduate School in Chemistry and Molecular and Cell Biology and a member of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, Dr. Judith Klinman has contributed to the understanding of the fundamental properties that underlie enzyme catalysis. Early in her career, she developed the application of kinetic isotope effects to the study of enzyme catalysis, showing how these probes can be used to uncover chemical steps, to determine kinetic order, and to obtain substrate dissociation constants. In 1990, she demonstrated the presence of the neurotoxin 6-hydroxydopa quinone (TPQ) at the active site of a copper-containing amine oxidase from bovine plasma, overcoming years of incorrect speculation regarding the nature of the active site structure and opening up the currently active field of protein-derived cofactors. Subsequent work from her group showed that the extracellular protein lysyl oxidase, responsible for collagen and elastin cross-linking, contains a lysine crosslinked variant of TPQ. Since the 1990s, Klinman's kinetic studies of enzyme reactions have demonstrated anomalies that implicate quantum mechanical hydrogen tunneling in enzyme-catalyzed hydrogen activation reactions. In recent years she has developed a unique set of experimental probes for determining the mechanism of oxygen activation. These probes are beginning to shed light on how proteins can reductively activate O2 to free radical intermediates, while avoiding oxidative damage to themselves.

Among her many distinctions, Klinman was the first woman faculty member in the physical sciences at UC Berkeley. She also is the only woman chair of the Department of Chemistry serving in that capacity from 2000 to 2003. During her tenure at Berkeley she has been a Chancellor's Professor, Guggenheim Fellow, and Miller Fellow. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, and has received the Repligen Award and the Remsen Award from the American Chemical Society. 

She was awarded the National Medal of Science  in 2002 by former President Barack Obama for her discoveries of fundamental chemical and physical principles underlying enzyme catalysis and her leadership in the community of scientists. Her parents told her when she started that if a woman chose a career in science it was typically as a lab tech. “But I had this underlying curiosity,’’ she said. “I was determined to go the whole route.’’ 

She wrote a wonderful autobiography published in the Annual Review of Biochemistry in 2019 entitled: "Moving Through Barriers in Science and Life."

Darleane Hoffman (active 1984-2013)

American Chemical Society Award for Nuclear Chemistry Presented by Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg to Dr. Darleane C. HoffmanPhoto: American Chemical Society Award for nuclear chemistry presented by Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg to Dr. Darleane C. Hoffman

Professor Emerita, Nuclear Chemistry, Dr. Darleane Hoffman (1926 - present) has fundamentally added to our understanding of radioactive elements. In 1971, scientists still believed that transuranium elements did not occur in nature, but in that year Hoffman, working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, discovered small amounts of plutonium-244 in a rock formation. Hoffman also isolated and characterized fermium-257—work that represented a monumental advance in the understanding of the fission process, according to the late Nobel Prize winner Glenn T. Seaborg. Hoffman also studied the chemical and nuclear properties of rutherfordium, bohrium, and hassium, and she confirmed the existence of seaborgium.

Hoffman had not always dreamt of becoming a nuclear chemist. She originally entered Iowa State College with a major in applied art. However, a required chemistry class, and an inspirational professor, influenced her to switch majors. When her applied arts professor asked if a career in chemistry was appropriate for women, Hoffman replied, “Of course, my chemistry professor is a woman.”

This question of gender would be a recurring theme throughout her career. When she solicited for a job in the 1950s with Los Alamos National Laboratory’s radiochemistry division, she was told that they didn’t hire women in that field. This didn’t discourage her and she became the first female division leader at Los Alamos, leading the isotope and nuclear chemistry division. According to Hoffman, “Nuclear science, was started in large part by women, among them Marie Curie. If anything, women were prominent because it wasn't an established field, and so it was easier to break into."

In the early 1970s, Hoffman made a discovery about nuclear fission, which is when an atom splits either because of radioactive decay or because it has been assailed by subatomic particles called neutrinos. Scientists knew that the nuclei of some elements split when pelted with neutrons, but Hoffman discovered atoms of fermium could split spontaneously. This would become integral towards creating methods to store nuclear waste in a cheap fashion, and away from the environment.

For her research efforts, she was awarded the National Medal of Science for Chemistry (among many other prizes) by former President Bill Clinton in 1997. Specifically, the committee cited the award was for her discovery of primordial plutonium in nature and the symmetric spontaneous fission of heavy nuclei; for pioneering studies of elements 104, 105, and 106, and for her outstanding service to education of students in nuclear chemistry and as director of the Seaborg Institute for Transactinium Science of the University of California. Hoffman discusses her experience at Berkeley in this 2012 video from the University of Notthingham.

More information about Hoffman’s career is available at the Science History Institute website.

Note: an earlier version of this story stated that Darlene Hoffman was the third woman chemist to come Berkeley when she was the fourth. In 2020, this article was updated  with the Women 150 logo in celebration of 150 years of co-education at Berkeley.