Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau

Margaret Hutchinson was born in 1910 in Houston, Texas. She gained a BSc from Rice in 1932 and a PhD from MIT in 1937, the first woman to gain a PhD in Chemical Engineering in the United States. She then became a professional chemical engineer with E.B.Badger in Boston, devising production routes for synthetic rubber and distillation of oil for aircraft fuel. During WW2 the importance of the recently discovered antibiotic, penicillin, caught the attention of the US government. Production in any quantity was proving difficult for them. The penicillin mould was described as “temperamental as an opera singer, the yields are low, the isolation difficult, the extraction murder, and purification invites disaster.”  First production routes mimicked the way the scientists had grown the mould in their labs, on flat surfaces. Margaret, now married to a fellow engineer in William Caubu Rousseau, applied her knowledge from her work on rubber and aviation fuel and set out to grow penicillin in deep tanks. Eventually there were 14 giant fermenters in a converted Brooklyn ice factory and over 1–2 million doses were ready to support the troops at the time of the Normandy landings in 1944.

Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau (1911 - 11 January 2000), American chemical engineer who designed the first commercial penicillin production plant. Source Wikimedia Commons (fair use). Source Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Margaret continued her successful career as an engineer, eventually retiring in 1961 and lived to the grand old age of 89. Her crucial efforts in designing production of penicillin were not recognised with a Nobel Prize as were those of the three scientists Florey, Fleming and Chain, but she was recognised by her own profession, becoming the first female member of AIChE in 1945, and receiving the Founders Award of AIChE in 1983.  

I only found out about this pioneering woman relatively recently, but she seemed to me to epitomise a key quality of the chemical engineering profession - innovation and thinking outside the box. In my research area of polymeric materials, I have many times encountered the dilemma of how a wonderfully promising material might be made in quantity and at reasonable cost. Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau is an early example of the many unsung chemical engineers to whom we are indebted in this pandemic year as we eagerly queue up for our vaccine jabs.

List image credit: Angela Cini /

This story has been contributed by Past President Julia Higgins