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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

Do you know of a great woman in engineering that should be recognized? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add her to the blog. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

Woman of the Week – Mary Eliza Mahoney

Posted August 07, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African American to study and work as a professionally trained nurse in the United States, graduating in 1879. Mahoney was one of the first African Americans to graduate from a nursing school. She challenged the discrimination she faced while learning and practicing in a predominantly white society.

She was born in 1845 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Mahoney's parents were freed slaves, originally from North Carolina, who moved north before the Civil War.

From a young age, she knew she wanted to be a nurse. She worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children (now the Dimock Community Health Center) for 15 years before being accepted into its nursing school, the first in the United States. She was 33 years old when she was admitted in 1878.

The work was rigorous. She was required to spend at least a year in the hospital’s various wards to gain universal knowledge, as well as attend lectures and observe doctors in the field.

After completing these requirements, Mahoney graduated in 1879 as a registered nurse — the first black woman to do so in the United States.

After gaining her nursing diploma, Mahoney worked for many years as a private care nurse, earning a distinguished reputation. She worked for predominantly white, wealthy families. She quickly earned a reputation for being professional, courteous and skilled. Word of her excellent work spread and she was quickly in high demand.

She worked for many families and hoped that by meeting many, she could spread the message against discrimination and eventually make equality more accepted.

In 1908, Mahoney co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) with Adah B. Thoms. This organization attempted to uplift the standards and everyday lives of African-American registered nurses. The NACGN had a significant influence on eliminating racial discrimination in the registered nursing profession. In 1951, the NACGN merged with the American Nurses Association.

From 1911 to 1912, Mahoney served as director of the Howard Orphan Asylum for black children in Kings Park, Long Island. The Howard Orphan Asylum served as a home for freed colored children and the colored elderly. This institution was run by African Americans. Here, Mary Eliza Mahoney finished her career, helping people and using her knowledge however she knew best.

In retirement, Mahoney was still concerned with women's equality and remained a strong supporter of women's suffrage. She actively participated in the advancement of civil rights in the United States. In 1920, when women were granted the right to vote, Mahoney was among the first women in Boston to register to vote.


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Woman of the Week – Martha Coston

Posted July 31, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

At 21, Martha Coston found herself widowed with four young children. After her husband Benjamin Coston died, she found his plans for a pyrotechnic (signal) flare in his notebook and decided that she could design a signal flare that would work based on the preliminary plans.

She faced two big challenges before she could come up with a design. First, the flares had to be simple enough to use in coded color combinations. They also had to be bright, durable, and long-lasting. Both factors were crucial so they could be effective tools for ship-to-ship and ship-to-land communications.

Her husband’s designs were a good starting point, but she had a lot of work to do before they were completed. For nearly ten years, Coston drove herself to develop a system of flare signaling based on Benjamin’s early work. With a limited knowledge of chemistry and pyrotechnics, she relied on the advice of hired chemists and fireworks experts – with mixed results. A breakthrough came in 1858, while Coston was witnessing the fireworks display in New York City celebrating the completion of the transatlantic telegraph cable; she realized that her system needed a bright blue flare, along with the red and white she had already developed. She established the Coston Manufacturing Company to manufacture the signal flares and entered into a business relationship with a pyrotechnics developer to provide the necessary blue color.

On April 5, 1859, she was granted U.S. Patent number 23,536 for a pyrotechnic night signal and code system (the patent was granted to her as administratrix for her husband, who is named as inventor). Using different combinations of colors, the flares enabled ships to signal to one another and to the shore. After extended testing – which demonstrated the effectiveness of the system –, the U.S. Navy ordered an initial set of 300 flares and later placed an order for $6000 worth of flares.

From there, Coston obtained patents for the flares in several other parts of Europe.

She remained in Europe until 1861, when she returned to the U.S. on the outbreak of the Civil War. She petitioned Congress to purchase the patent so that the flares could be used in the approaching conflict. After some delay, Congress passed an act on August 5, 1861, authorizing the U.S. Navy to purchase the patent for $20,000 (less than the $40,000 she had originally demanded).

Coston flares were used extensively by the U.S. Navy during the Civil War; they proved particularly effective in the discovery and capture of Confederate blockade runners during the Union blockade of southern ports. Coston flares also played an important role in coordinating naval operations during the battle of Fort Fisher in North Carolina on January 13–15, 1865.

In 1871, Coston obtained a patent in her own name – Patent No. 115,935, Improvement in Pyrotechnic Night Signals. In addition to working on improvements to the signaling system, she continued to press claims for additional compensation from the U.S. government. Due to wartime inflation, the Coston Manufacturing Company supplied flares to the U.S. Navy at less than cost; Coston estimated that the government owed her $120,000 in compensation. Although she pressed her claims for over ten years, she was offered only $15,000 additional reimbursement.

Coston’s desires to be taken seriously and have her invention succeed were only part of her struggles. Almost immediately following her husband’s death, she and her sons moved back to Philadelphia to live with her mother; soon thereafter, her youngest son became ill and passed away. It was not long after this that her mother's health began to deteriorate and, despite Martha's great care, she too passed on. She was left without much money, but her motivation got her by.

Eventually, every station of the United States Life-Saving Service was equipped with Coston flares which were used to signal ships, warn of dangerous coastal conditions, and summon rescuers to a wreck scene. Many accounts of wrecks and rescues describe the use of the Coston flare, which was instrumental in saving thousands of lives. Martha died in 1904; her company, later called the Coston Signal Company and the Coston Supply Company, remained in business until at least 1985.


1 comments; last comment on 07/31/2017
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Woman of the Week – Joycelyn Elders

Posted July 24, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Dr. Minnie Joycelyn Elders is known for her frankness; progressive views on reproductive health and drug legalization and for having served as the first African American Surgeon General of the United States.

Born in Arkansas to a sharecropping family, Elders graduated valedictorian of her class. She went on to Philander Smith College in Arkansas and earned her Bachelor’s Degree in biology. After a short time working as a nurse’s aide at a Veteran’s Administration hospital, she enlisted in the Army. She trained to be a physical therapist during her three years in the Army. Shortly after, she completed medical school and completed an internship and her residency. She then earned a Master’s Degree in biochemistry.

Over the next twenty years, Elders combined her clinical practice with research in pediatric endocrinology. She worked to publish dozens of papers, most about with problems of growth and juvenile diabetes. This work led her to the study of sexual behavior and her advocacy on behalf of adolescents. She observed many health problems, including the problems a young woman with diabetes getting pregnant too young may face like include spontaneous abortion and possible congenital abnormalities in the infant . She helped her patients to control their fertility and advised them on the safest time to start a family.

In 1987, then-governor Bill Clinton appointed Elders as Director of the Arkansas Department of Health, making her the first African American woman in the state to hold this position. While in office, she reduced the teen pregnancy rate by encouraging use and availability of birth control, counseling, and sex education in schools. She also increased childhood health screenings and immunizations and expanded care for those with HIV, while upping prevention methods and education.

She also worked hard to promote the importance of sex education, proper hygiene, and prevention of substance abuse in public schools as well. In 1992, she was elected President of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers.

In January 1993—when Bill Clinton was President—he appointed her as the United States Surgeon General, making her the first African American and the second woman (following Antonia Novello) to hold the position.

Her appointment was controversial due to her views and outspoken attitude. She argued for an exploration of the possibility of drug legalization, and backed the distribution of contraceptives in schools. President Clinton stood by Dr. Elders, saying that she was misunderstood. She also was a strong backer of Clinton’s health care policy.

In 1994, she was forced to resign from the post as her views drew a lot of opposition from conservative leaders, who spearheaded a campaign to remove her from office.

She was invited to speak at a United Nations conference on AIDS. She was asked whether it would be appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity, and she replied, "I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught." This remark was the last straw for politicians that disagreed with her, and began the fight to get her out of office.

Elders has since made a number of other statements that put her in the public spotlight, like her January 1994 quote on abortion: "We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus and start worrying about children."

After her resignation, Elders has returned to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences as professor of pediatrics, and is currently professor emerita at UAMS. She is a regular on the lecture circuit, speaking against teen pregnancy.


32 comments; last comment on 07/28/2017
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Woman of the Week – Alexa Canady

Posted July 17, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Alexa Canady is the first woman and African American neurosurgeon in the United States. She grew up in Lansing, Michigan and overcame many obstacles over the course of her education and study.

Canady's parents taught her and her brother about the importance of education and hard work as a child. Canady and her younger brother were the only two African-American students in their school. They faced many obstacles throughout their school years. Her upbringing and strong sense of self allowed her to overcome the obstacles of the time and have great academic success.

Before university, Alexa Canady was nominated as a National Achievement Scholar in 1967. She attended the University of Michigan, where she received her B.S. degree in zoology in 1971 and became a member of Delta Sigma Theta. She later received her M.D. with cum laude honors from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1975. She then became a surgical intern at the Yale-New Haven Hospital from 1975-1976, rotating under Dr. William F. Collins.

Although being an exceptional student, she still faced prejudice and discriminative comments as she was both the first black and female intern in the program. She then became the first African American woman neurosurgery resident in the U.S. at the University of Minnesota. Despite what people said about her, Canady viewed her accomplishments as something both women and African Americans could look up to. She often worried her skin color and/or gender would hold her back from certain opportunities.

On her first day of residency at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, she was tending to her patients when one of the hospital's top administrators passed through the ward. As he went by, she heard him say, "Oh, you must be our new equal-opportunity package." Comments like these – which illustrated certain people’s way of thinking – made it hard for her to convince top administrators to allow her to work in neurosurgery, despite her tremendous credentials.

Canady spent most of her working life as the Chief of Neurosurgery at the Children's Hospital of Michigan. She held this role from 1987 until her retirement in 2001. During her time as Chief, she specialized in congenital spinal abnormalities, hydrocephalus, trauma, and brain tumors. In addition to her medical work, she also pushed to change the perspective of how African Americans, both as patients and physicians, are perceived. She claims the major medical problem for Blacks stems from the scarcity of research targeting their specific health concerns and needs. Her work and accomplishments have opened the door for surgeons of all races and genders.

She also earned many awards and distinctions. Canady was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1989. Canady received the American Medical Women’s Association President’s Award in 1993 and in 1994 was awarded the Distinguished Service Award from Wayne State University Medical School. In 1984 she was named Teacher of the Year by Children's Hospital of Michigan. She received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1986. She is a member of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, the Society of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and the American college of Neurosurgery.

Canady has also been awarded three honorary degrees – doctor of humane letters honorary degrees from the University of Detroit-Mercy in 1997 and Roosevelt University in 2014, and a doctor of science from the University of Southern Connecticut in 1999.

Though she is retired from practicing, she still works to change the landscape for African Americans in the medical field.


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Woman of the Week – Stephanie Kwolek

Posted July 10, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Stephanie Louise Kwolek was an American chemist, whose career at the DuPont Company spanned over forty years. She is most well known for her invention of a family of synthetic fibers of exceptional strength and stiffness: poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide — better known as Kevlar.

Kwolek was born to Polish immigrant parents in the Pittsburgh suburb of New Kensington, Pennsylvania, in 1923. Her father died when she was 10 years old, but spent her childhood with her exploring nature. She says that he sparked her interest in science.

In 1946, Kwolek earned a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in chemistry from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College of Carnegie Mellon University. She had planned to become a doctor and hoped she could earn enough money from a temporary job in a chemistry-related field to attend medical school.

Instead, she was quickly recruited to work at DuPoint’s Buffalo facility. She was mentored by Hale Charch. She actually told him she had another offer and needed a definite reply from DuPont, and he immediately offered her the job then.

She reportedly got her job because of the amount of men that were overseas at the time for World War II. She completed extensive research on polymers during her formative years there, so they let her stay. While Kwolek initially only intended to work for DuPont temporarily, she found the work interesting and decided to stay rather than pursuing a medical career, moving to Wilmington, Delaware, in 1950 to continue to work for the company.

In 1964, in anticipation of a gasoline shortage, her group began searching for a lightweight yet strong fiber. The research results were intended for use in tires. The polymers she had been working with at the time, poly-p-phenylene terephthalate and polybenzamide, formed liquid crystal while in solution that at the time had to be melt-spun at over 200 °C (392 °F), which produced weaker and less-stiff fibers. A unique technique in her new projects and the melt-condensation polymerization process was to reduce those temperatures to between 0–40 °C (32–104 °F).

This sort of cloudy solution usually was thrown away. However, she persuaded technician Charles Smullen, who ran the spinneret, to test her solution. To her surprise, this fiber did not break like nylon typically did.

Both her supervisor and the laboratory director understood the significance of her discovery, and a new field of polymer chemistry quickly arose. By 1971, modern Kevlar was introduced. Kwolek learned that the fibers could be made even stronger by heat-treating them. The polymer molecules, shaped like rods or matchsticks, are highly oriented, which gives Kevlar its extraordinary strength. It’s said to be stronger than steel.

Today, Kevlar is used in a great number of different ways, including armor, gloves, tires, yacht sails, shoes, ropes, and tennis racquet strings.

Kwolek was awarded the DuPont company's Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement. As of February 2015, she was the only female employee to have received that honor. In 1995, she became the fourth woman to be added to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Kwolek won numerous awards for her work in polymer chemistry, including the National Medal of Technology, the IRI Achievement Award and the Perkin Medal.

After retirement, she spent many years tutoring young girls in science. She died in 2014.


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