By Marie Roth, PhD, Synthetic Organic Chemistry, 1951


As a science Ph.D. from the early 1950’s, I just want to share a bit of my story. I graduated B. A. summa cum laude from Mount Holyoke College in 1945 at the age of 19 with a major in chemistry and minors in mathematics, physics and physiology and, at the advice of the chemistry department, who at that time really did act “in loco parentis”, stayed on as a teaching assistant and graduate student, obtaining my M. A. in organic chemistry.  Mount Holyoke was a very special place to do science, especially chemistry, since my professors included three early Garvan medalists, Drs. Emma Perry Carr, Mary Sherrill and Lucy Pickett and a young Anna Jane Harrison, who later became the first ACS female chairman.  With such a powerful female influence, I didn’t realize at the time that women in chemistry were at all unusual.  I had to leave the environment to learn that.  We also had a large group of chemistry majors—about 30 or about 10% of the class.  The Mount Holyoke chemistry department was also part of a wartime Office of Scientific Development group research project on antimalarial drugs, in which many of the honor and graduate students took part.


In 1947 I arrived at Madison at the University of Wisconsin, where I was one of almost a dozen female teaching assistants (there were probably 40 to 50 for the various undergraduate courses).  It was a completely different world for me after 12 years in a female educational environment, the six years at Mount Holyoke preceded by six years at the former Girls’ Latin School in Boston (now coed Boston Latin Academy).  I chose as my major professor, Dr. William S. Johnson, working in the field of synthesis of steroidal hormones.  I was Dr. Johnson’s first female Ph. D. candidate although, I believe, he had previously had a master’s candidate or two.  Being a member of his group was certainly an interesting experience.  I had been an important part of the Mount Holyoke research group, but found that at UW I was a very minor entity.  But, despite one attempt by Dr. Johnson in testing my determination to persist (when he tried to persuade me to apply for a job on the Merck Index), I did indeed persist and received my Ph . D. in December of 1951.


At Wisconsin I met the man, who was to persuade me that life offered me more than just chemistry.  Donald Roth, who had his doctorate in food chemistry and was a veteran naval officer from World War II, was taking premed courses and also acting as an instructor in freshman chemistry in 1947.  In 1948 he went off to Milwaukee to Marquette University School of Medicine but we reconnected socially a year later and were married in June 1951, when I thought I would have finished my doctorate research and thesis.


I was hired by the research division of Pittsburgh Paint, located at the time in Milwaukee, and everything looked promising.  However, with my firstborn on the way by the time I actually got my degree, I met with the research director, who told me that, although they could not use me in the laboratory under the circumstances, I would be hired as a chemical librarian/literature searcher to provide background information on emulsion polymerization for another Ph. D. they had just hired.  I was grateful and worked full-time with some flexibility in hours.  I was not grouped with all the other time-clock punching female employees but was considered a professional employee, albeit with little or no contact with the other professionals, and remained in the position until three weeks before my daughter was born.


Chemistry over the next several years played a very minor role in my life.  For a few years I kept up with organic chemistry as an abstractor for Chemical Abstracts, spent a semester as an emergency replacement for a professor at a local private college, and  attended ACS Organic Division seminar meetings every other year.  I was a full-time mom, wife of a busy young internal medicine specialist and an active member of my church and civic communities.  The children were, ultimately, four in number over a 13-year time span, so there were lots of school and sports activities to be involved in.


In 1969 I audited a course at a two-year center to update myself on the field and for the next seven years was a part-time instructor in general chemistry in the Wisconsin two-year college center program, where I was involved with the chemistry course for student nurses.  It was low-key and low-pay, but I enjoyed the professional contacts.  I had time for all the church and school and community activities but found that, after seven years, a budget rearrangement left me without a position.  Working with my husband on a gas-chromatography medical research project lasted one day.  I withdrew to keep our marriage comfortable! I did a couple of sabbatical replacement teaching positions at local universities at about half the position holder’s salary, then spent a year learning about modern instrumental analytical chemistry as a volunteer researcher with a young professor, whom I also assisted as an editorial consultant on papers.  The local section of the American Chemical Society, for whom I had been acting as publication editor, decided it was time for a female chairman and I spent a busy couple of years as program chair and then general chair for them.


And then I was 65—retirement came before I ever really felt productive in my field. I have reached a stage in my life, where I no longer strive to be a professional nor do I feel guilty about not doing so.  I have turned my research interests to family history and combine that with an interest in my four children and their lives and in my six grandchildren, the oldest of whom are at the graduate school level and aiming at intersting careers of their own.


My legacy, however, has been to teach my daughters and my women students and now my granddaughters, that, if you have professional training, in whatever field, you should find a way to keep active in the field and not become outdated.  My oldest daughter, a math major and M.B.A., has worked full-time, except for two brief pregnancy leaves, for 35 years.  My second daughter, a math major and Ph. D. statistician, has done the same except for time-off for having three children.  My youngest with a biology major and master’s in environmental resource management has worked at first full-time and then part-time since the arrival of her only child five years ago.  They each have had their experiences with the elephant, in either the workplace or the laboratory.


1 Response to “Another Ph.D. mom shares her story”


  1. 1 International University Canada July 25, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    I truly believe for students to become better learners we need to better educate the educators. We can affect a

    greater and more lasting change in education . So we need better Teach.

    Thinks for this. Awesome post. So many good things i learn from it. I will come back soon.


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