A Chemical Engineering Pioneer and Some of Her Descendants

Photo credit: Walter P. Reuther Library

To celebrate Women’s History Month, ChEnected is featuring stories about some of the women who have shaped chemical engineering as a profession and who have worked to make AIChE a more diverse and equitable community. 

During chemical engineering’s first half-century, the profession was dominated by men. As recently as the early 1970s, only one in every 200 AIChE members was a woman. 

Rousseau’s legacy

Stepping into that environment, Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau (1910–2000) was a true chemical engineering trailblazer. Born in Houston, Texas, Rousseau began her engineering studies at Rice University before moving on to MIT, where in 1937 she became the first woman to earn a doctorate in chemical engineering. Soon thereafter, Rousseau would make her mark on the profession and the world.

While working at Pfizer in the early years of World War II, Rousseau drew on process design experience she had acquired while producing synthetic rubber and distilling oil into high octane fuel, and designed the first process for producing penicillin on a commercial scale. Her deep-tank fermentation process enabled large scale production of the miracle drug, which saved countless lives during World War II and became a turning point in human history as the first real defense against bacterial infection.

As part of AIChE’s history, Rousseau would record other firsts. In 1945, she became the first woman member the Institute, and she later became the first woman elected as an AIChE Fellow. In 1983, Rousseau was the first woman to receive AIChE’s Founders Award, the Institute’s highest honor.

The Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau Pioneer Award 

In 2017, AIChE honored Rousseau once again with the creation of a new Institute-level award: The Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau Pioneer Award for Lifetime Achievement by a Woman Chemical Engineer. Sponsored by Pfizer, the prize honors a woman member of AIChE who has made significant contributions to chemical engineering research or practice. The honoree’s accomplishments also include a component of service, mentorship, or leadership in helping to raise the visibility of women engineers and paving the way for women to have a greater impact in chemical engineering.

Rousseau Award recipients

To date, four AIChE members have received the Rousseau Pioneer Award.

2017: Frances Arnold

Frances Arnold is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Biochemistry, and Bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology. Her work focuses on protein engineering by directed evolution, an approach that has generated important developments in the bio-based economy, including applications in energy, chemicals, and medicine. In 2018, Arnold’s work in the directed evolution of enzymes garnered the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

2018: Elsa Reichmanis

Elsa Reichmanis is Professor and Carl Robert Anderson Chair in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Lehigh University. Her research is at the interface of chemical engineering, chemistry, and materials science. Reichmanis was recognized for her contributions to the design and development of robust polymer processes for the fabrication of optoelectronic devices, leadership, and service to the engineering community.

2019: Paula T. Hammond

Paula T. Hammond is the Koch Professor and Head of Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is also a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Her work in nanomedicine encompasses new biomaterials that enable targeted nanoparticle drug and gene delivery. Hammond was honored for her professional leadership and pioneering scientific and engineering contributions to thin film layer-by-layer polymeric structures with broad applications in energy and medicine.

2020: Carol K. Hall

Carol K. Hall is the Camille Dreyfus Distinguished University Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at North Carolina State University. Her work has impacted areas as diverse as the stabilization of colloidal suspensions, the manufacturing of engineering plastics, and the identification of possible molecular mechanisms for Alzheimer’s disease. She is also recognized for her mentorship of young faculty and women. Hall is the second woman — after Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau — to receive AIChE’s Founders Award (2015).

The Institute’s 2021 Rousseau Pioneer Award recipient will be announced during the 2021 AIChE Annual Meeting, November 7–12, in Boston, Massachusetts.


Laura Jarboe's picture

Thank you for this excellent write-up! I've been trying to do some research on Rousseau and have been trying to get in touch with you. Can you check your inbox?

Patsy Chappelear's picture

ERROR in above story, which I found most interesting. I was the first woman elected Fellow of AIChE. My certificate is dated 10 July 1980. In fact, I have two certificates: one acknowledges me for "his" contributions. After the second woman (Margaret) objected to the format, I received my second certificate for "her" contributions. My current activity in the field is with my daughter, another female engineer. She is a member of the engineering faculty of Houston Community College. I assist her and other professors as a panelist for their beginning engineering classes. I have also established a scholarship for the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers in Houston honoring my daughter's work with the Student Chapter at HCC. I am still at age almost 90 a dues paying member of AIChE. Patsy Stallings Chappelear