Rebecca Treiger explores the story of a pioneering industrial researcher whose name is on 29 patents but whose research career ended with the birth of a child.
In the year of the US stock market crash, the career of chemist-physicist Sylvia Stosser began. She became the first female researcher hired by the Dow Chemical Company in Midland, Michigan in 1929. Stosser is credited with helping to invent styrene, as well as contributing to the development of Saran wrap (also known as cling film), vinyl plastics, and Styrofoam. . His work also led to safer dry cleaning solvents and increased crude oil production.
Stasser died at the age of 89 almost 20 years ago, but the enormous contribution he made to the field of chemistry, as well as to the chemical industry and to the Dow Jones Index itself, has received increasing recognition and recognition in recent years.
Sylvia Görgen was born July 18, 1901 in Buffalo, New York, and received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University at Buffalo, graduating with honors in 1923. University of Iowa.
Prior to her marriage in the summer of 1929 to Wesley Stoesser, a fellow chemist she met while studying at the University at Buffalo, Sylvia worked in the National Standards Administration’s sugar laboratory in Washington, D.C., looking for a sugar substitute. for diabetics. . When Wesley, then her fiancé, got a job at the Dow Chemical Organic Laboratory in 1928, Sylvia made it clear that she would not move with him to Michigan without finding work there.
“I told Wes that if he comes to Midland, he will have to find a job. I was determined to use my education,” she is quoted as saying in a news article among the Sylvia Stösser Collection at the Iowa Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa Libraries. Her ultimatum got Wesley into action, and it helped her bypass Dow’s usual job interview and job processes at the time. various accounts, including one relayed by daughter Judy, describe how Wesley took Doe’s wife Grace to church and told her about his then-fiancee and how their marriage depended on both of them finding the right job Shortly thereafter, Herbert Dow hired Sylvia as a research chemist at the Dow Physical Research Laboratory in 1929, until her death shortly thereafter, at the time she was the only woman and the only doctor in the laboratory.
According to the Stossers’ daughter and others familiar with the story, only two couples knew the new hire was a woman before they began work. “It was a huge surprise,” Judy told the Des Moines Register in 1991 after her mother’s death. The rest of the lab staff expected Dr. Stösser to be a man.
Stesser’s active research career at Dow lasted only about 11 years and ended when she became a mother. She left the company when Judy, her only child, was born in 1940. It was quite revolutionary at the time for a woman to place so much importance on her career that she would put off having a child until she was in her 40s. .
But in just a decade at Dow, Stoesser received 29 different patents. “She was certainly a genius, much of what she developed is still used today,” says Stephen Zimmerman, an organic chemist at the University of Illinois, USA. “She was a really great intellectual force,” he adds. “The fact that she became pregnant was effectively the end of her career: it was expected that she would not work in a laboratory and would have to focus on her child for the rest of her life.” Looks like he ever returned to the lab.
Wesley’s desire for Herbert Doe to hire his wife “suggests that he was probably quite willing to have an intellectually bright wife and support her to the best of his ability,” Zimmerman says.
While at Dow, Stösser pioneered the use of organic acid inhibitors to stimulate production in oil wells, receiving five patents in this area. This work led to the creation of the Dow subsidiary in 1932, which grew into a billion dollar a year business.
In addition, Stösser helped develop new ways to polymerize styrene into polystyrene. In fact, his 12 patents from the 1930s, widely considered to be among his most important works, deal with various aspects of Styrofoam. “When we started looking into styrene, it didn’t look promising at all,” she was quoted as saying in another archived news clipping. “At first, developing styrene as a commercial product seemed impossible.”
Stesser’s work also revolutionized the dry cleaning industry. This led to the development of a perchlorethylene-based (PERC) dry cleaning fluid that was neither flammable nor explosive and therefore safer than the flammable naphtha-based solvents in use at the time. “PERC hasn’t proven to be a very environmentally friendly or healthy chemical, so there’s been a movement in the last decade or so to phase it out,” Zimmerman notes.
In fact, an April 2020 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency PERC risk assessment project concluded that the main health risk from short- and long-term exposure to this chemical is neurological damage. The agency also found the chemical to be hazardous to aquatic life.
In her relatively short time at Dow, Stoesser held patents with 15 of her male colleagues and even collaborated with her husband on one that focused on stabilizing polymerizable vinyl compounds. According to the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois, only one of her patents lists her as the sole inventor.
They all came to her to test their ideas and get help.
Numerous sources, including Dow herself, say that Stösser’s colleagues considered her “the best female chemist since Marie Curie”. Even after she left to raise her son, she continued to work for the company as a consultant for several more years.
Her Dow colleague Ray Boundy, with whom she published the final paper on styrene in 1952, called Stosser “the scientist of the group”, recalling that “everyone came to her to try out their ideas and get help”.
It is to be expected that working in the purely male environment of an industrial chemistry laboratory in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s was to be a great test for Stösser. “I’m sure it was very hostile; it was probably extremely difficult to do anything,” says Zimmerman. It would be very unpleasant.
However, Stosser herself describes the atmosphere of the Dow Physics Laboratory in rather enthusiastic terms in her chapter of the 1990 publication The History of the Dow Chemical Physics Laboratory. “In our lab, no idea has been ruled out as too crazy to explore. In fact, we were called every day to think about an unattainable goal, ”wrote Stösser. “Along with this freedom of thought and the desire to try the impossible, there have been many failures in the laboratory phase, but also many successes in new products and processes.”
Among those moved by Stosser’s life and achievements was Yulan Tong, who received his PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1961 and joined Dow Chemical shortly thereafter. Tong never met Stösser, but says she was legendary in the company.
“There were not many women working in our field, and when we got together, we talked, and I was upset that Stösser had to resign,” she recalls. “It’s only rumored, but I was told that she was offered to resign; she was not fired, and after the birth of the child she was a Dow consultant, but was inactive in the laboratory.
She would have been a world famous chemist if she had lived at a later age.
Tong, who retired from Dow after nearly 30 years, says Stosser has paved the way for women scientists at the company and beyond. “Because she was so good, she made life easier for the women who came after her,” Tong recalls. “I never felt any discrimination while working at Dow because my colleagues … came to me for help and I asked them for help.”
To honor her memory, Tong organized a lecture series at the University of Illinois in honor of Stosser in 2000. Sylvia Stosser’s lectures are dedicated to women from outside academia who have made outstanding contributions to chemistry and deliver a lecture to students. . These annual conferences, originally funded in part by Dow, continue.
“She was a trailblazer and I think you have to wonder what society would be like if we allowed people with that kind of talent and drive to realize their abilities,” Zimmerman says. “She would have been a world-famous chemist if she had lived at a later age.”
Stösser was posthumously inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame for her contributions to science and technology in October 1992. Around the same time, Iowa State University established the Sylvia Stösser Memorial Scholarship to support women pursuing science and engineering careers at the university.
Most recently, to commemorate the anniversary of the split from DowDuPont in January, Dow held the grand opening of a newly renovated building called the Sylvia Stoesser Center. The 350-employee home was built with sustainable materials and includes design elements such as “mom rooms” for breastfeeding mothers, gender-neutral bathrooms, and “meeting rooms” to facilitate collaboration.
Dow CEO Jim Fitterling recently proposed re-launching a 30-year-old commercial for Dow that featured Stösser. “Dr. Stösser has created a new career path for women and for her company, the same company that has led the country in the number of patents issued to women over the past decade,” the ad said. “We think Dr. Stösser would be pleased,” he finished.