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“i Always Felt There Was A Spiritual Aspect To What I Was Doing”

AS EDITH FLANIGEN EXPLAINS IT, THE STORY OF ZEOLITES dates back to 1756, when a Swedish mineralogist, Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, discovered that a certain type of natural crystal possessed a remarkable quality. When Cronstedt held the stone in a flame, it began to sizzle and froth as water inside the stone came to a boil. He combined two Greek words to name the crystal: zein , meaning “to boil,” and lithos , meaning “stone.”

Years later scientists realized that zeolites had an interesting use. The pores in their crystalline lattice could act as a sieve small enough to sort molecules by size. This became the focus of Flanigen’s research: seeking methods to synthesize a wide range of zeolites useful in commercial processes ranging from petroleum refining to environmental cleanups. Her discoveries in this field led to her becoming, in 1992, the first woman to win the Perkin Medal, the highest honor of the Society of Chemical Industry.

She sat down to talk about her career during an interview in February after a press conference that announced her induction this year into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Why did you become a chemist?

I was committed to being a chemist in high school. I think the most significant influence was my high school chemistry teacher, Sister St. Mary, at Holy Angels Academy, in Buffalo. She was hands-on in the lab. She just turned everybody in the class on to the chemistry. She also happened to be my basketball coach.

Then I went to D’Youville College, run by the same order of nuns, and I had a wonderful chemistry teacher there, Dr. Dorothea Fitzgerald. She continued that excitement. That convinced me, and in fact it convinced my two sisters too. The three of us got degrees in chemistry. We all went to that same high school and college, and we had the same chemistry teachers.

The other thing I probably should mention, in all honesty, is that when I went to college, I had a very intense experience in terms of religion and philosophy and theology. I think that contributed to my career. To me, creating a new material is very analogous to creation, so I always felt there was a spiritual aspect to what I was doing.

During college I belonged to the Buffalo Professional Christian Life Community. It was a lay Jesuit group, a group of professional people in the Buffalo area who got together and discussed their thinking, their religion, and what they should do consistent with that. At the time, the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had a grandiose scheme he called “From Alpha to Omega,” dealing with science in terms of creation. It had a lot to do with my thinking about how what I was doing as a chemist related to creation. We formed a Teilhard group in Buffalo, with all sorts of scientists, physicists, chemists, and psychologists, all kinds of people, and we studied his thinking and his books. That was a very strong influence also. These people were thinkers. We didn’t always agree, but it was very stimulating intellectually.

You’ve had an extraordinary career. Your name is on 108 patents. How did you do it?

Throughout my career I’ve had the privilege of working with exceptional people. One thing I learned early was to appreciate the uniqueness of each person you work with. Each one has a particular talent, and the trick of leading is to put those talents together to have a successful project.

I was in leadership positions all through high school and college and on into my career with Union Carbide. I think a good trait of a leader is to recognize what each person brings to the table. And, by the way, we always had fun. In the early days, when the bosses went away on a trip, we would always have a peasants-and-peons party in the lab. I would mention in our daily report that we had this party. I think it’s important to have happy people who get along together and have fun.

 

Did you ever encounter any barriers as a woman in a field dominated by men?

Yes, oh, yes. The first barrier was when I was first promoted. I had men who were Ph.D.’s working for me, and they didn’t want to work for a woman, period. I remember one time while I was with Union Carbide, one of the business people came from headquarters, and I happened to be standing outside my office when he came by and said, “Would you get me a cup of coffee, please?” But I just focused on what I was doing, and doing it the right way, and being successful, and I tried not to let those little things bother me.

When I first started in the 1950s, there were surprisingly many women, and my sisters and I were all there as chemists. The human resources person used to give us psychological tests to determine why three women would decide to be chemists. Then, as the years went by, there weren’t many women in the Union Carbide molecular-sieve department, for whatever reason. Maybe two or three in a hundred. I can’t explain it.