The New York Times has an obituary today of pioneering Caltech chemist who passed away last week at the ripe age of 98. Roberts was a truly incredible organic chemist, contributing massively to a diversity of fields that most scientists can only dream of crisscrossing. Even a short listing of the fields he enriched includes NMR spectroscopy, molecular orbital theory, reaction mechanisms and kinetic isotope effects.
“Caltech, unlike MIT, did not admit women as students, although there were a few female postdoctoral fellows. I talked to Linus about Dorothy and her strong desire to come to Caltech. To my surprise, he showed immediate interest. He told me that the question of admitting women had been raised not many years earlier, and that the faculty had voted not to change. Furthermore, he said that the Institute’s trustees had taken note of the faculty action and had endorsed it. But he said he wanted to try again with a specific case, and asked that Dorothy submit an application as soon as possible.
I wasn’t on hand and had no idea what happened at Caltech during the decision-making process. It was certainly to the credit of both Caltech and Linus that the matter was settled by the end of the academic year, including approval by the trustees. There were stories that I had said I would not come if Dorothy was not admitted. That was not true. I only presented the case and others carried the ball, but it was wonderful to be associated with an institution that could act so quickly to change a very strong tradition.”
“This gallant action is not, however, an open invitation to the ladies. It applies only to “women of exceptional ability who give promise of great scientific contributions.” And, before she can enroll, a woman must get the approval of the academic division in which she intends to work, as well as that of the Committee on Graduate Study.’ With such hurdles as these, it is hardly likely that the campus will ever be swarming with female students. Most admissions of women, in fact, will probably involve the use of unique or outstanding research facilities here.”