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The Nuclear Chemist Who Shattered the Glass Ceiling

Dr. Lilli Hornig, a longtime advocate of women in science and a chemist involved in The Manhattan Project, passed away in her Providence, Rhode Island home on November 17th. She was 96 years old.

Hornig’s daughter said the cause of death was heart and lung failure. Hornig is also survived by two other children, nine grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren.

Hornig left behind a legacy of supporting and mentoring women in science. In 1976, she founded Higher Education Resource Services, which – according to their website – focuses on “advancing women leaders and advocating gender equity.” She was also an avid supporter of universities accepting more women as science students and educators.

Hornig’s dedication to helping women in scientific fields came from her own persistence in overcoming obstacles during her journey toward becoming a respected chemist.

Born in 1921, in what is now the Czech Republic, Hornig moved to Montclair, New Jersey with her parents to escape Hitler’s persecution of Jews. Her father was a physical chemist and her mother was a pediatrician, so she was always intrigued by the sciences.

In 1942, she received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Bryn Mawr College. She then went to Harvard University for her master’s degree, but was met with pushback from the department.

“The first thing they said was, ‘Well, the girls always have trouble with physical chemistry, so you’ll take Harvard undergraduate physical chemistry,’” Hornig remembered in a 2011 interview with the Atomic Heritage Foundation. “And I said, ‘I’m a grad student, I didn’t come here to take undergraduate courses.’”

She made a deal with them that if she could pass their qualifying exam, she could take graduate classes. She aced the test, but because she did not know enough math, she had to also take a graduate-level thermodynamics and statistical mechanics class.

Her career as a scientist launched in 1944 when her husband Donald, also a chemist, was recruited to join The Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. While there, Hornig also got a job – as a secretary. She could barely even type.  

“She had a master’s degree in chemistry from Harvard, but typing had not been one of the requirements,” Ruth H. Howes and Caroline L. Herzenberg wrote in their 1999 book, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project.

Hornig eventually convinced superiors to let her join another woman in studying plutonium, but was moved again when it was discovered that the isotope’s radioactivity could harm women’s fertility. This time, she was placed in her husband’s department, where they experimented with explosives and helped create the atomic bombs that would end World War II in 1945.

After her time at Los Alamos, she got a Ph.D. in chemistry at Brown University, and later served as chairwoman of the Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University) chemistry department. Hornig’s persistence in proving that women could accomplish more than just secretarial duties has helped open opportunities and create communities for women in science, something for which the world should be forever thankful.

Featured Image by Amy on Flickr

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