Skip to main content
No. 1181:
Edith Humphrey

Today, a woman doesn't quite get the Nobel Prize. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created Them.

In 1913, Swiss chemist Alfred Werner won the Nobel Prize for explaining something Louis Pasteur had pointed out. Pasteur had found two crystalline salts with exactly the same chemical makeup. One bent polarized light to the left, the other bent it to the right. One salt seemed to be left-handed, the other, right-handed.

In 1897, Werner claimed that the molecular arrangements in such molecules had to be mirror images of each other. He also claimed that a huge class of molecules had mirror images like that. Other chemists laughed at him -- said he was downright crazy.

Finally, in 1911, an American student did a terribly complex sequence of processes that produced right and left-handed cobalt-based salts for Werner. When other chemists saw that, their resistance broke down. Two years later, Werner had the Nobel Prize.

So far, this makes a fairly conventional story of scientific discovery. But chemist Ivan Bernal has found the oddest wrinkle in it. He picks up the tale just after Werner first made his claims. Around 1898, a remarkable young woman named Edith Humphrey came from England to do her doctorate with Werner.

An English woman doing doctoral work in chemistry in a foreign university was unheard-of a century ago. But Humphrey was no ordinary woman. She became Werner's first woman Ph.D.

She did her dissertation on the same cobalt salt crystals that American would synthesize ten years later. But she did it without all that fancy processing. In the course of her work she prepared many crystals and left them with Werner, carefully marked, in a box. And there they sat for 86 years.

Then Bernal heard about them and predicted they would have the necessary left/right optical property. Sure enough, Humphrey's crystals showed exactly the same behavior Pasteur had seen. Werner had his validation right there, and he'd missed it.

Meanwhile Werner had sent that American all around the mulberry bush recreating Humphrey's crystals. Bernal points out that his work was completely unnecessary because her crystals already had sufficient purity. Worse yet, Werner idolized Pasteur and was completely aware of his use of polarized light. Yet he'd never thought to shine polarized light through Edith Humphrey's crystals. If he had, the matter would've been settled in 1901.

Edith Humphrey went back to England and lived to the age of 102. She set up a research laboratory for a British dye and fabric company. She was its chief chemist. If she or Werner had only thought to test her crystals, she might've had part of a Nobel Prize as well. But she died just before Bernal figured that out. She died without ever knowing -- just how close she had come.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Bernal, I., A Sketch of the Life of Edith Humphrey, A Pioneer Inorganic Chemist Who Barely Missed Proving Werner's Theory of Coordination Chemistry a Decade Before It Was Eventually Demonstrated Correct. Chemical Intelligencer, January 1999, pp. 28-31.

I am grateful to Ivan Bernal, UH Chemistry Department, for suggesting this topic and for providing considerable counsel.

For more on chirality and mirror imaging, see Episodes 604 and 1184.