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Family Chemistry

One spring day in 1960, my mother became, in a small-scale, localized fashion, a legend in her own time. She was taking one of several lengthy cumulative exams in her Yale doctoral program in organic chemistry. PhD candidates had to pass eight of these tests, and by then she had passed six. During the exam—or it might have been before; she didn’t remember by the time she told me about it—she went into labor. But she finished the exam and went to the hospital to give birth to me. And she passed. Her fellow chemistry students never forgot it.

My mother, Jean Day Lassila (1934–2008), received her doctorate from Yale in 1961. Women made up a very small fraction of the chemistry PhDs that year, and she was the only woman in her research group. But she never had a single complaint, even when I asked, years later, about the rigors of finishing a dissertation with a baby to care for. She was enormously proud of having gone to Yale.

¬†As our article “The Pioneers” shows (page 42), the first women to receive PhDs at Yale, back in 1894, apparently didn’t try to combine academic life with marriage and children. As female academics, they had stepped far outside the social norms of their era—perhaps too far to step back in. But for my mother, having both family and work seemed possible and essential. At the University of Wyoming she had become engaged to my father, Kenneth E. Lassila ’62PhD, a physics major. (They graduated first and second in their college class. It must have irked her endlessly to come in second.) They went to Yale together and were married in Battell Chapel.

My father got a job offer from Iowa State University not long after graduating; he was quickly tenured, and there they stayed. My mother coauthored three introductory chemistry textbooks. She also did research at ISU. Her most important papers, from 1968–69, are still cited in new research every year. Although I can’t tell you what her paper “Direct Observation of Ketene Intermediates in Photochemical Reactions” means, it has become part of the intellectual architecture of her area.

But social norms and academic possibility gradually diverged in my mother’s life. No teaching post ever came open for her at ISU. How much that had to do with her particular skills, how much with me and my two brothers, and how much with any doubts at ISU in those days about hiring women into science jobs, we can’t know. She eventually stopped doing research, and after she and my father divorced, she went into administration at ISU. She wouldn’t admit it, but I think the loss of her science career caused her pain.

Women are still scarce in the physical sciences. The Yale administration and the Yale Women Faculty Forum stress, among other things, mentoring and networking. If older women help pave the way, younger women won’t feel quite as far outside the norms.

That applies even to those of us who don’t choose science careers. On my first day in freshman organic chemistry at Yale—I was one of a handful of young women in a roomful of young men—I got into a conversation with the boy sitting beside me. When I told him my name, he did a double-take. “Didn’t your father write a chemistry textbook?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “My mother.” Thanks to her, I was surprised, just for an instant, that he would get it wrong.  the end

 
     
   
 
 
 
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