Chemistry & Chemical Engineering


Azin Saebi, 2022.

A Formula for Success

Since MIT's first classes were held in 1865, the Department of Chemistry has been at the forefront of scientific research. Chemistry (Course V) has been an integral part of the curriculum since the Institute's founding.

Chemical Engineering (Course X) was founded in 1888, and became its own department in 1920. In 1907, MIT became the first school in the United States to award Ph.D. degrees in chemical engineering.

Between 1873 and 1941, 51 women earned undergraduate SB degrees and 18 earned graduate-level SM degrees in Chemistry. In Chemical Engineering, 4 women earned SB degrees. Dorothy Quiggle (SM ‘27) was the first, and only, woman in this period to receive an SM degree in Chemical Engineering.

In the early 20th century, the Department of Chemistry made significant contributions to the development of chemical engineering, helping to revolutionize industrial processes including the widespread production of penicillin. The first commercial penicillin plant was designed by Dr. Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau (PhD ’37), the first woman to earn a PhD in Chemical Engineering in the United States.

the chemists

"The Chemists," The Technique yearbook, 1892.

Elements of Change

Post-war years saw the expansion of cutting-edge research facilities and equipment and a focus on organic synthesis and pharmaceuticals. Dr. Mary Frances Wagley (SB ’47), a student during this era, became the first woman president of MIT Alumni Association, and the first woman to join the MIT Corporation.

In 1987, Dr. JoAnne Stubbe became the first woman in the Department of Chemistry to earn tenure. That same year, assistant professor Dr. Ellen Henderson established the Women in Chemistry (WIC) group to increase the numbers of women and other minoritized people in the department.

Dr. Sylvia T. Ceyer was the first woman to head the Department of Chemistry in 2010. Dr. Paula T. Hammond (SB ’84, PhD ’93) became the first woman to head the Chemical Engineering department in 2015, succeeded by Dr. Kristala Prather (SB ’94) in 2024.


Eve Higginbotham (SB/SM ‘75), circa 1974.

Achievements in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at MIT

1865 - Margaret Stinson, first woman staff member at MIT, hired to run the chemistry laboratory’s supply room

1873 - Ellen Swallow Richards (SB V) MIT’s first woman graduate 

1922 -  Dr. Elizabeth Gatewood Pietsch (PhD V), first woman to receive a PhD in Chemistry

1922 - Frances Hurd Clark (SM V, ScD III) and Bertha Sanford Dodge (SM V) first women to receive masters degrees in Chemistry

1927 - Dorothy Quiggle (SM X) first woman to receive a masters degree in Chemical Engineering

1937 - Dr. Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau (ScD X), first woman to receive an ScD in Chemical Engineering

1953 - Luz S. Sy (SM X), first known Filipina woman to receive a degree in Chemistry

1971 - Alexandra Zakak (SM X), first known Middle Eastern woman to receive a degree in Chemistry

1979 - Dr. Jennie Patrick (ScD X), first known Black woman in the US to earn a doctoral degree in Chemical Engineering

1980 -  Dr. Pusha Devi Singh (PhD V), first known South Asian woman to receive a PhD in Chemistry

1987 - Dr. JoAnne Stubbe, first woman in the Department of Chemistry to become tenured

2010 - Dr. Sylvia T. Ceyer, first woman to head The Department of Chemistry 

2015 - Dr. Paula T. Hammond ('83, PhD '93), first woman to head the Chemical Engineering Department