Early Women Biochemists 1911-1939: Harriette Chick

In 1911, 50 invitations were sent to potential members of a new ‘Biochemical Club’. Each of those invited to form what eventually in 1913 became the Biochemical Society had one thing in common: all were men.

If women were marginalised at the Biochemical Society’s inception, they quickly gained a foothold within the field of biochemistry.  Over a series of blog posts we will look at the careers of the first three women members of the Society: Harriette Chick, Ida Smedley and Muriel Wheldale.

Harriette Chick at the start of her career at the Lister Institute in 1907.
Harriette Chick at the start of her career at the Lister Institute in 1907.

The early twentieth century witnessed a transformation in how scientists comprehended the relationship between diet and nutrition. Previously, nineteenth-century scientists had viewed carbohydrates, fats and proteins as sufficient for human and animal health. Nutritional tests in the emergent UK and USA biochemistry departments such as Cambridge and the Lister Institute found evidence of previously unsuspected dietary components that were essential to health.

From resistance to acceptance

By 1907, Harriette Chick had begun to establish her reputation as a biochemist. Nevertheless, she had encountered some resistance on the way. Chick obtained her early education at Notting Hill High School for Girls (founded 1873), which had an excellent reputation for science teaching. Even so, relatively few women entered the pure sciences in the period when Chick graduated. When Chick won an 1851 Exhibition Research Scholarship to study bacteriology in 1899, she was one of just two women out of sixteen successful applicants.

The academic sciences were primarily a male preserve into the 1900s. Consequently, it remained possible for men to question the suitability of women such as Chick for scientific careers. In 1905, Chick was selected for a Jenner Memorial Studentship at the Lister Institute. At this point, two existing members of staff implored the Lister Institute’s Director to reconsider, on the basis that as a woman, Chick would be unsuited to the work. The Director – Charles Martin – appointed Chick regardless. In 1908, Chick firmly established her name, through her ground-breaking work on disinfection, which became enshrined in ‘Chick’s Law’.

Chick’s research

Harriette Chick had begun her research career working on bacterial disinfection. Chick’s Law (1908) provided an equation to measure (through the Chick-Martin Test: 1908) the effectiveness of disinfection in reducing the lethality of bacteria. Chick thereafter worked on the physical chemistry of proteins until c.1914, when her collaborator (and Lister Institute Director) Charles Martin (1866-1955) suggested she turned her attention to nutrition. Key work included her post-war Viennese research (1919-1922) with Elsie Dalyell and Margaret Hume on hunger osteomalacia. This provided the biochemical proof that rickets was non-transmissible, but rather a nutritional disorder caused by the absence of fat-soluble vitamins. Earlier, Chick had investigated the antiscorbutic (anti-scurvy) properties of a variety of foodstuffs, from milk and onions to cabbage and fruit juice. After 1922, she followed up her antirachitic (anti-rickets) research. From the early 1930s, Chick turned her attention to the relationship between pellagra and maize. 

Few can match the longevity of Harriette Chick’s engagement with scientific research and policy, which spanned nine decades from 1890s to the 1970s. Most of this working life was spent at the Lister Institute’s laboratories at Chelsea. The two world wars, however, both led to temporary relocations: to Vienna from 1919 and to Cambridge in order to be near Martin’s temporary Cambridge laboratories in 1939.

Online resources

This post is an extract from a website developed by Dr Stephen Soanes, Professor Robert Freedman and Professor Hilary Marland from the University of Warwick. It expands upon and complements Dr Vicky Long’s research into women and biochemistry, which explores the position of women in the Biochemical Society and professional biochemistry. Further information on both these resources can be found online

Early Women Biochemists 1911-1939
Women Biochemists, 1906-1939

Celebrating Women in Biochemistry 2013

Throughout 2013 the Biochemical Society is celebrating the past, present and future influence of women with interests in the molecular biosciences with a series of new initiatives, events and activities.

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