“I Always Felt There Was a Spiritual Aspect to What I Was Doing”
For Edith Flanigen, inventing new chemicals has been deeply meaningful work—as well as great fun
AS EDITH FLANIGEN EXPLAINS IT, THE STORY OF ZEOLITES dates back to 1756, when a Swedish mineralogist, Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, discovered that a certain type of natural crystal possessed a remarkable quality. When Cronstedt held the stone in a flame, it began to sizzle and froth as water inside the stone came to a boil. He combined two Greek words to name the crystal: zein , meaning “to boil,” and lithos , meaning “stone.”
Years later scientists realized that zeolites had an interesting use. The pores in their crystalline lattice could act as a sieve small enough to sort molecules by size. This became the focus of Flanigen’s research: seeking methods to synthesize a wide range of zeolites useful in commercial processes ranging from petroleum refining to environmental cleanups. Her discoveries in this field led to her becoming, in 1992, the first woman to win the Perkin Medal, the highest honor of the Society of Chemical Industry.
She sat down to talk about her career during an interview in February after a press conference that announced her induction this year into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Why did you become a chemist?
I was committed to being a chemist in high school. I think the most significant influence was my high school chemistry teacher, Sister St. Mary, at Holy Angels Academy, in Buffalo. She was hands-on in the lab. She just turned everybody in the class on to the chemistry. She also happened to be my basketball coach.
Then I went to D’Youville College, run by the same order of nuns, and I had a wonderful chemistry teacher there, Dr. Dorothea Fitzgerald. She continued that excitement. That convinced me, and in fact it convinced my two sisters too. The three of us got degrees in chemistry. We all went to that same high school and college, and we had the same chemistry teachers.
The other thing I probably should mention, in all honesty, is that when I went to college, I had a very intense experience in terms of religion and philosophy and theology. I think that contributed to my career. To me, creating a new material is very analogous to creation, so I always felt there was a spiritual aspect to what I was doing.
During college I belonged to the Buffalo Professional Christian Life Community. It was a lay Jesuit group, a group of professional people in the Buffalo area who got together and discussed their thinking, their religion, and what they should do consistent with that. At the time, the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had a grandiose scheme he called “From Alpha to Omega,” dealing with science in terms of creation. It had a lot to do with my thinking about how what I was doing as a chemist related to creation. We formed a Teilhard group in Buffalo, with all sorts of scientists, physicists, chemists, and psychologists, all kinds of people, and we studied his thinking and his books. That was a very strong influence also. These people were thinkers. We didn’t always agree, but it was very stimulating intellectually.
You’ve had an extraordinary career. Your name is on 108 patents. How did you do it?
Throughout my career I’ve had the privilege of working with exceptional people. One thing I learned early was to appreciate the uniqueness of each person you work with. Each one has a particular talent, and the trick of leading is to put those talents together to have a successful project.
I was in leadership positions all through high school and college and on into my career with Union Carbide. I think a good trait of a leader is to recognize what each person brings to the table. And, by the way, we always had fun. In the early days, when the bosses went away on a trip, we would always have a peasants-and-peons party in the lab. I would mention in our daily report that we had this party. I think it’s important to have happy people who get along together and have fun.
Did you ever encounter any barriers as a woman in a field dominated by men?
Yes, oh, yes. The first barrier was when I was first promoted. I had men who were Ph.D.’s working for me, and they didn’t want to work for a woman, period. I remember one time while I was with Union Carbide, one of the business people came from headquarters, and I happened to be standing outside my office when he came by and said, “Would you get me a cup of coffee, please?” But I just focused on what I was doing, and doing it the right way, and being successful, and I tried not to let those little things bother me.
When I first started in the 1950s, there were surprisingly many women, and my sisters and I were all there as chemists. The human resources person used to give us psychological tests to determine why three women would decide to be chemists. Then, as the years went by, there weren’t many women in the Union Carbide molecular-sieve department, for whatever reason. Maybe two or three in a hundred. I can’t explain it.
Over the years we’ve hired a lot of women graduate students to work summers in the research lab, and I’ve talked to them to try to mentor them. When they drop out, they often tell me it’s because they were harassed. Not by the faculty but by their fellow male graduate students. I think it’s still true, unfortunately. I think they feel like second-class citizens.
“IT’S THE MOST INTERESTING, REWARDING WORK YOU CAN DO. NOT IN TERMS OF MONEY, BUT IN TERMS OF EVERYTHING ELSE.”
How did you become involved with zeolites?
In the late 1940s a guy at Union Carbide named Bob Milton was challenged to find a new way to separate air into nitrogen and oxygen. They had been doing it with a very lowtemperature distillation process that was quite expensive so they wanted him to find a new way. He read some work that reported on a zeolite that separated molecules around the size of nitrogen and oxygen, so he went into the lab and tried to synthesize this mineral. Instead, he found a new method for making zeolites, and he made the first commercially significant zeolite, called zeolite A. Then there was a B, and a C, and so on.
At the time, all the materials were aluminosilicates, salts containing aluminum, oxygen, and silicon. Our general manager actually came to my group and me and said, “We want you to discover a whole new generation of this material.”
Well, we answered, “Where do we start?” We spent weeks reading the literature and met once a week to talk about what we had learned. We ultimately voted on what to try. We chose to make our first new molecular sieve from aluminum, phosphorus, and oxygen.
Steve Wilson, Brent Lok, and myself got to work, and in about a month we came up with the first novel molecular sieve. We started trying other elements from the periodic table, and we ended up with 13 elements and about 200 structures. We would vote on which direction to go in next. That was most unusual in corporate research. Nowadays you hear a lot about teamwork in industry; this was well before that. Union Carbide, to its credit, started a whole new business based on these materials and introduced them as adsorbents and separation materials, and later as catalyst materials for making gasoline and jet fuel.
Did this work help you advance at the company?
I think the aluminophosphate work did. It was highly thought of, and they kept it very hush-hush until we had all the patents filed. By the way, in almost all those cases there were coinventors with me. I feel bad that I get all the glamour and they don’t, because they were just as significant. In terms of advancement, there was a management ladder and a technical ladder. I personally preferred not to be a manager, frankly, but still I think that if I had wanted to be a manager, I wouldn’t have advanced as far as I did along the technical ladder.
What was the most satisfying thing about your career?
The people, absolutely the people. The people I had the opportunity to work with, all through my career, were wonderful. We were all friends. They were all very creative in different ways. They were what I was most rewarded by and satisfied with, without question. We argued. We had dissensions. But then we voted, and everybody agreed. And the work itself is satisfying. I would say it’s the most interesting, rewarding work you can do. Not in terms of money, but in terms of everything else.
When we did synthetic-gem work, it was a thrill to see a large emerald like this come out of the reactor. [She holds up her hand to display a ring with a large green stone.] It got a large amount of press, and Union Carbide produced it as jewelry for 10 or 12 years. It was a nice feeling, and it’s a beautiful thing. Chemically, it was very difficult to make. That was very satisfying.
The other big thing that happened was when we made silicalite, the first hydrophobic zeolite. It somehow got into The Wall Street Journal . They ran a story about how this great new thing was going to clean up the environment, purify water, and so on. We got a thousand responses from the article. People wanted samples of silicalite. It took a while to get it commercialized, because it was expensive, but it’s used now in cleanups. I found the fact that there was so much interest in it very satisfying.
I should tell you that when I got the Perkin Medal, the first person who called to inform me was the corporate vice president of research and development at Union Carbide. I missed his call, and I thought, “What’s he calling me for? I’m not at work.” Carbide and UOP [formerly Universal Oil Products] put on parties galore, and they let me take an unlimited number of co-workers and relatives to New York, to the Plaza Hotel. They paid for their airfare and they paid for three nights at the Plaza. Probably a dozen of my colleagues from the lab and almost all my relatives from Buffalo and elsewhere were there. The companies were extremely supportive of me.
I was very lucky. My group always had good support for what we were doing. There were a few times, during bad times, when we had a layoff or two, but that was the exception. We were doing basic, fundamental research, and we always had the backing of management for what we were doing. Again, that’s not typical in industry.
Looking back, I don’t have too many regrets. It’s been a good life. Rewarding, and consistent with my own personal outlook, religion, morals, and so forth. I don’t have many complaints.
Are you satisfied with the way your inventions are used?
Yes, I think so. I can’t think of any use that has been detrimental to society or the environment. On the contrary, one of the zeolites I helped develop is being used now to clean up solvents in paint shops. There are many such applications. Of course, the use of zeolites in the production of gasoline and jet fuel revolutionized the whole process in terms of volume, quality, and, subsequently, lead removal. Zeolite has had a lot of uses that aren’t well known but are beneficial to science and the environment.
So you have no complaints at all?
It’s best not to voice them, I have found.