In 1918, Dorothy Hall Brophy was the first woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of Michigan. She graduated from high school in Toledo, Ohio, where she taught while awaiting acceptance to Michigan. After completing her chemical engineering degree, she went on to complete a PhD in chemistry at Michigan in 1920 (her graduation photo at left) and was elected to the Society of Sigma Xi. Her dissertation was titled “The Separation of Copper and Cobalt by Phenyihiohydantoic Acid and the Volumetric Determination of Cobalt.” Education was important in Dorothy’s family; her parents both held business school diplomas and her older sister, Marguerite, earned a master’s and doctoral degree at Michigan.
After graduating from Michigan, Dorothy worked briefly as a consultant to the U.S. Government in the Bureau of Mines before taking a job as a chemist at General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York. She was the first woman with a PhD to work at the GE Research Laboratory, where she was a research chemist from 1920 to 1932. She authored many papers on analytical methods of identification and separation of rare metals such as tungsten, vanadium, molybdenum, and thorium, and testified in patent defense cases for the company. Dorothy was awarded several patents for her work on an alkali metal alloy while she was at GE. She was also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
She married Gerald R. Brophy, also employed at GE, in 1921. They had a daughter Margaret “Peggy” who died of meningitis at age eight. Her family and society judged her harshly, blaming her child’s death in part on Dorothy being an absent (i.e., working) mother. Soon after Peggy’s death, Dorothy left GE never to return to research. She and Gerald had two more children, Elizabeth Margaret and Jere Hall, but Dorothy never fully recovered from the loss of her beloved first child and the bitterness of feeling forced to abandon the career she worked hard to achieve.
Dorothy eventually returned to the workforce, teaching chemistry at the University of Connecticut, Hartford, and in the Hartford public schools but only as a substitute. The school district wanted to hire her as a full-time teacher but Dorothy had no interest in obtaining her teaching certificate—she thought her PhD in chemistry was sufficient preparation! Her granddaughter, Kathryn Janoff, Elizabeth’s daughter, says Dorothy was deeply proud of her work achievements, and of her education and association with the University of Michigan. She remained active in the University of Michigan Alumni Association, and served as president of the Hartford,CT U-M Club, as well as president of the First District of the Alumni Association.
Her daughter, Elizabeth, attended the University of Michigan, and her son, Jere, who passed away in 2013, earned four degrees at Michigan in chemical engineering and metallurgical engineering: BSE ChE 1956, BS MTL 1956, MSE MTL1957, PhD MTL 1958. Both Jere and Elizabeth met their spouses at U–M. When Dorothy Hall died in 1989, the family asked friends to send memorial gifts in her name to the College of Engineering at Michigan.
Dorothy’s career as one of the nation’s first female scientists has been documented in two books, Women in Engineering: Pioneers and Trailblazers by Margaret Layne, and Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 by Margaret Rossiter.
Thanks to Elizabeth’s daughter, Kathryn Janoff, for the images and newspaper articles, and for other assistance with details about her grandmother’s career.