Berkeley Lab

Berkeley Lab’s Darleane Hoffman Reflects on Changes in Women’s Status in Her 70 Years in Chemistry

August 14, 2014


Darleane Hoffman at the American Chemical Society Meeting in 2014.

Had it not been for an inspiring female chemistry professor in college 70 years ago, Darleane Hoffman may never have gone on to become a widely acclaimed nuclear chemist. Yet if she had followed in that professor’s footsteps, she may also never have gone on to get married and have two children and several grandchildren.

Such were the stark choices facing women in science in the middle of the last century. “At that time, women teachers in the U.S. at all levels were expected to resign if they married, so I proclaimed boldly that I would never teach,” she said. “I vowed to follow Marie Curie’s model, to marry if I wanted and have children if I chose.”

Hoffman, whose career achievements include making an important discovery about nuclear fission and being part of the team, along with Glenn Seaborg, that discovered several superheavy elements, covered some of the changes she has seen in the status of women in science during her seven decades in chemistry in a talk this week at the American Chemical Society National Meeting in San Francisco.

She entered Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) in 1944 as an applied art major, which was based in the home economics department. “Fortunately, chemistry was a required course,” she said. “Due to an inspiring chemistry professor, Dr. Nellie Naylor, a spinster, I switched to chemistry.”

She continued: “When I told my applied art counselor, also a spinster, she asked if I thought chemistry was a suitable profession for a woman. I replied, ‘Of course, my chemistry professor is a woman!'”

Darleane Hoffman at Ames in 1950

Darleane Hoffman at Ames in 1950

In the summer of 1947 Hoffman was hired as a research assistant by Don Martin at the university’s Institute for Atomic Research. “He said he would pay $250 for the whole summer,” she said. “I thought, that beat working in a boring banking job back home for $85.”

Not only did she make money, she “was bitten by the thrill of finding new isotopes that no one had seen before.”

She completed her undergraduate degree in chemistry the following year, then stayed to pursue a Ph.D. That same year she also met her future husband, a physics graduate student named Marvin Hoffman. Her doctorate was completed in record time: on Dec. 20, 1951, she was awarded her degree for a dissertation titled, “High Specific Radioactivities of Cobalt, Platinum, and Iridium from Photonuclear Reactions.”

Six days later, the day after Christmas, she got married. “I vowed not to marry until I got my Ph.D.,” she said.

The next month she moved to Tennessee to take a position at Oak Ridge National Laboratory while her husband stayed in Iowa to finish his Ph.D., a rather unconventional arrangement at that time. “His professor told him, ‘You’ve made a terrible mistake. You should have married a sweet young girl who will stay home and take care of you,’” she said. “Of course that was not me.”

Glenn Seaborg farewell party for Darleane Hoffman in 1979. Cake reads: "It was a SHEer pleasure knowing you, Darleane," with SHE standing for superheavy element.

Glenn Seaborg farewell party for Darleane Hoffman in 1979. Cake reads: “It was a SHEer pleasure knowing you, Darleane,” with SHE standing for superheavy element.

In 1953 both of them got jobs at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where they would stay the next 30 years. Within a few years, they had a daughter and a son, but Hoffman took very little time off for her pregnancies. Eventually her mother moved to Los Alamos to help take care of the kids. “I learned a very important lesson: you can’t do it all yourself,” she said. “You have to get help.”

She cited two sabbaticals—one an NSF fellowship in Norway and another a Guggenheim Fellowship working in Seaborg’s group at Berkeley Lab—as being vital in shaping her career. After she returned to Los Alamos in 1979, she was named head of the Division of Chemistry and Nuclear Chemistry, the first woman to head a scientific division at the lab.

After moving to Berkeley in 1984 to become a professor at UC Berkeley­ as well as a senior scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Nuclear Sciences Division, a position she still holds today, Hoffman continued to forge new paths as a female scientist. She became only the second female tenured professor in the chemistry department. In 2000 she was awarded the Priestley Medal, the highest honor of the American Chemical Society. She was only the second woman to get the award, and no woman has won it since, a fact she laments.

“Overall the status of women and women teachers in science has changed dramatically. World War II was a major factor,” Hoffman said. “But the status of women chemists has changed slowly. They still don’t get the awards at ACS and other places.”

More of her scientific achievements and accolades are covered in this Berkeley Lab article from 2000.

-by Julie Chao