Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau, PhD:
Finding a Better Way and Saving Lives

Note: I wrote this “mini-biography,” which is part of an evolving series appearing on my website, to help inquisitive individuals of all ages learn more about engineering. We may know something about engineering because we frequently see or use the results of engineers’ efforts. Another way to learn about engineering is to meet some exemplary engineers. Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau, PhD, was an exemplary engineer. Read her story and, if you want to know more, use the sources listed at the end.

- Stuart G. Walesh, PhD, PE
stu-walesh@comcast.net

Education and Research

Margaret Hutchison was born in Houston, Texas in 1910. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Rice Institute in 1932 and a Doctor of Science degree in chemical engineering from MIT in 1937. The latter made her the first woman to earn that degree in the United States, and this first would be the first of her many “firsts.” She started her chemical engineering career in Boston, Massachusetts, where she met and married William C. Rousseau.1,2 Her strength in the practice of chemical engineering was characterized as follows: No matter what the product, she “found a better way to manufacture it.”3

Supporting the World War II Effort and Other Accomplishments

In 1928, Arthur Fleming, the Scottish physician, discovered penicillin, which destroys bacteria that cause many types of infections. Fleming’s discovery inspired scientists to develop other antibacterial drugs for bacteria not sensitive to penicillin.4 Once discovered, penicillin’s use was greatly hampered by the difficulty of extracting penicillin from the mold that created it. Only one person received penicillin treatment in the first 14 years following its discovery. The post-discovery challenge was how to quickly produce large quantities of the antibacterial drug.5

During World War II, Rousseau drew on her experience in producing synthetic rubber and distilling oil into high octane airplane fuel to design a process that produced penicillin on a large scale. Her process grew penicillin-producing mold using fourteen large, deep fermentation tanks installed in a former ice factory in Brooklyn, New York.

Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau, Portrait

As a result, by D-Day in 1944, over two million doses of penicillin were available for use by Allied forces—meaning many lives were saved. While carrying out that assignment, Rousseau, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, and others determined the structure of penicillin, another first.6,7,8

Firsts

In 1945, Rousseau was the first woman to become a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), and in 1983, she was the first woman to receive AIChE’s Founders Award. Today, the AIChE annually presents the Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau Pioneer Award for Lifetime Achievement by a Woman Chemical Engineer to an AIChE member who has made significant contributions to chemical engineering research or practice. The Society of Women Engineers presented Rousseau with its Achievement Award in 1983.9,10,11

Cited Sources

1) Fairclough, C. 2017. “Happy Birthday, Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau.” COMSOL Blog, October 27.https://www.comsol.com/blogs/happy-birthday-margaret-hutchinson-rousseau/, accessed October 8, 2019.

2) Wikipedia. 2019. “Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Hutchinson_Rousseau, accessed December 12, 2019.

3) Hatch, S. E. 2006. Changing Our World: True Stories of Women Engineers. Reston, VA: ASCE.

4) Van Doren, C. 1991. A History of Knowledge. New York: Ballantine Books.

5) Browne, J. 2019. Make, Think, Imagine. New York: Pegasus.

6) Browne, J. 2019. Make, Think, Imagine.

7) Fairclough, C. 2017. “Happy Birthday, Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau.” 

8) Wikipedia. 2019. “Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau.”

9) American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). 2019. “Institute Awards.” https://www.aiche.org/community/awards/institute-awards?page=1#views-exposed-form-awards-page-award-by-type, accessed October 9, 2019.

10) Fairclough, C. 2017. “Happy Birthday, Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau.”

11) Wikipedia. 2019. “Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau.”

Image source: Rousseau, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.


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