An Early Start for Women in Optics

Jeff Hecht

A look at nine pathbreaking women who joined the Optical Society of America in its first decade.

figureChristine Ladd-Franklin. [Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives]

In 1919, three years after its founding, the Optical Society of America (OSA; now Optica) admitted its first woman member. Then 71 years old, Christine Ladd-Franklin—OSA member 118—had published her first paper on vision in 1892. In the years leading up to the society’s 10th anniversary in 1926, eight other women members followed, all at least a generation younger than Ladd-Franklin.

All of these scientists except one have pages on Wikipedia (today’s version of Who’s Who), and the only one who left science or medicine went on to become a prominent mountaineer. This feature briefly profiles the nine women who joined OSA in the society’s first decade—and, indirectly, touches on the situation for women scientists in the United States at the time.

Christine Ladd-Franklin

Born in 1847 in Windsor, CT, USA, Ladd-Franklin was valedictorian of her preparatory school and studied with pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell at Vassar College, a women’s college in Poughkeepsie, NY, USA. She graduated in 1869 with a degree in mathematics, but later said she would have preferred physics if any labs had been open to women at the time. She taught science and math in secondary schools but grew bored with that role.

figureThe title page from the 1929 edition of Colour and Colour Theories by Christine Ladd-Franklin. [Courtesy of Marrin’s Bookshop]

In 1878, she applied to and was accepted at the recently founded Johns Hopkins University, MD, USA, as C. Ladd, to study mathematics with James J. Sylvester. When university officials discovered she was a woman, they tried reject her, but the sympathetic Sylvester insisted she be accepted as his student. She later studied with the experimental psychologist Charles Sanders Pierce, who was her advisor for a dissertation “On the Algebra of Logic.”

Although the dissertation was published in 1883, the university did not award her a Ph.D. until 1926. After she married fellow student Fabian Franklin in 1882, Hopkins would not let Ladd-Franklin teach there until 1904—and even then limited her to one course a year without pay.

Active in research but unpaid, Ladd-Franklin visited Germany to work with experimental psychologist Georg E. Müller and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz. At that time, experimental psychology included research in color and vision, areas that were particularly important in OSA’s early years, and Ladd-Franklin began publishing her research on color vision in 1892. The American Psychological Association accepted her a member the next year. In 1915 Columbia University, NY, USA, gave Ladd-Franklin an unpaid lectureship, which lasted until her death in 1930. She published six papers and gave two exhibits at OSA events, and she published her own book on color theory in 1929.

figureGertrude Rand (left), the first woman honored with OSA’s Edgar D. Tillyer award, receives the award from Kenneth Ogle (center) and John Strong (right) in 1959. [Photograph by E. Aaron, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives]

Gertrude Rand

Gertrude Rand, born in 1886 in Brooklyn, NY, USA, became OSA’s member 159 in 1919 or 1920. She received an undergraduate degree in experimental psychology from Cornell University, NY, USA, in 1908 and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College, a woman’s college in Pennsylvania, in 1911. Rand stayed at Bryn Mawr as a researcher and a professor through 1927—and was, in fact, one of seven women with a Bryn Mawr connection who joined OSA during its first 10 years.

Rand worked with her dissertation supervisor, Clarence E. Ferree, whom she married in 1918, retaining her maiden name professionally. The two mapped the retina’s sensitivity to light and color. Rand also served on the Council on Industrial Lighting for the National Research Council from 1924 to 1927, and she designed glare-free illumination for the 8500-ft (2.6-km) Holland Tunnel connecting New Jersey and New York. In 1928, Rand and Ferree moved to Johns Hopkins to establish a vision research lab. After Ferree died in 1942, Rand relocated to Columbia University and worked on color blindness.

In 1959, Rand was among the five women named in OSA’s first class of Fellows and became the first woman to receive the society’s Edgar D. Tillyer Medal.

Rand was well-honored in her later years. The Illuminating Society of North America named her its first female fellow in 1952 and awarded her its gold medal in 1962. In 1959, Rand was among the five women named in OSA’s first class of Fellows and became the first woman to receive the society’s Edgar D. Tillyer Medal. She died in 1970 at age 83.

Mabel Katherine Frehafer

Born in 1886 in Philadelphia, Mabel Katherine Frehafer, whose father was a clerk in a coal yard, graduated from Bryn Mawr, briefly taught there, and earned a doctorate in physics from Hopkins before becoming the second woman with a Ph.D. to be hired by the US National Bureau of Standards (NBS).

Samuel W. Stratton, the first director of NBS, had initially refused to hire women when the agency was founded in 1901. But he gave in during World War I because enough men could not be found to support rapid expansion of the bureau, the size of which more than doubled from 517 people in 1917 to 1,117 in 1918. Nearly a hundred women worked at NBS during the war, and some remained there for many years afterward.

A spectroscopist who worked on colorimetry, Frehafer joined OSA as member 178 in 1920 or 1921, while working at NBS. In 1925, she joined the faculty at Goucher College, a women’s college in Towson, MD, USA, where she remained until retiring in 1952.

Frehafer resigned from OSA in 1929 as her interests changed, but she was one of the 450 charter members who formed the Acoustical Society of America in that year. She is the only one of OSA’s first nine women members not listed on Wikipedia, but Physics Today published her obituary after her death in 1967.

figureElizabeth Rebecca Laird. [© University of Western Ontario, Physics Dept. Archive, used with permission]

Elizabeth Rebecca Laird

Born in Owens Sound, OT, Canada, in 1874, Elizabeth Rebecca Laird was at the top of her class when she graduated from the University of Toronto in physics and mathematics in 1896—but as a woman could not get a scholarship for graduate study. After she taught for a year, Bryn Mawr College gave her a fellowship to study with Max Planck and Emil Warburg at the Humboldt University of Berlin in 1898 and 1899. She returned to Bryn Mawr to complete her Ph.D., and had taught physics for 20 years at Mount Holyoke College, MA, USA, when she joined OSA as member 281 in 1922.

Laird’s wide interests included magnetism and spectroscopy, and she was the first woman to study with J.J. Thomson at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University, UK. After retiring from Mount Holyoke in 1940, she returned to Canada and volunteered for war-related work at the University of Western Ontario. She worked on radar, taught soldiers and sailors, wrote several top-secret reports, monitored equipment in an unheated campus facility—and refused to accept payment for any of it.

When Laird retired again in 1953, she was recognized as one of Canada’s most distinguished physicists. She died in London, OT, at 94 in 1969. Asteroid (16192) Laird was named in her honor.

Janet Howell Clark

Janet Howell Clark had studied and taught at both Bryn Mawr and Johns Hopkins when she joined OSA as member 337 in 1922. Born in Baltimore, MD, USA, in 1889, she majored in physics at Bryn Mawr, received her Ph.D. in physics from Hopkins in 1913, and then returned to Bryn Mawr in 1914 to teach physics.

In 1917 she married Admont Clark, a pathologist at the Hopkins Medical School, who died during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Afterward, she returned to Baltimore with her infant daughter to join the physiology department at Johns Hopkins, where her father was on the faculty. At Hopkins, Clark’s interests shifted from physics to physiology and vision. She became an authority on the biological effects of infrared, visible and ultraviolet light and X-rays.

figureMiriam O’Brien ascends a chimney up a cliff near Boston, MA, USA, in 1929. [Photograph by R. Underhill / Courtesy of the Underhill family collection]

Clark remained at Hopkins as a professor until 1938, when she became dean of the college for women and a professor of physiology at the University of Rochester, NY, USA, until her retirement in 1952. After that, she returned to Hopkins, where she remained until her death in 1969. The University of Rochester annually presents a prize in her honor to “a woman in the senior class who has shown the greatest promise in creative work in physics, chemistry, biology or astronomy and who has shown outstanding versatility in the mastery of allied fields.”

Miriam O’Brien

One of three women OSA members who graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1920 and later studied at Hopkins, Miriam O’Brien joined the society in the early 1920s, as member 386.

O’Brien was born in 1898 in Forest Glen, MD, USA, in a household that was unconventional at the time; her mother was a physician and her father was a newspaper editor and government official. She earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics and a master’s in psychology at Bryn Mawr, then studied physics at Johns Hopkins from 1923 to 1925. However, her parents had taken her to the Alps in 1914, and the mountains eventually called her back. She left OSA in 1930 and devoted much of the rest of her life to pursuing her love of climbing.

Wikipedia calls her “an American mountaineer, environmentalist and feminist, best known for the concept of manless climbing”—all-woman groups climbing without male assistance. She was part of the first all-woman ascent of the Matterhorn in 1932, the same year she married Harvard mathematician Robert Underhill, another enthusiastic mountaineer. She died in 1976.

figureLouise Littig Sloan (left) receives the Edgar D. Tillyer Award from 1971 OSA President Bruce Billings. [Optica]

Louise Littig Sloan

Louise Littig Sloan also joined OSA in the early 1920s, as member 387—one number after O’Brien’s. But she remained focused on science and medicine, and specifically ophthalmology.

Born in Baltimore in 1898, Sloan spent most of her life there. After graduating from Bryn Mawr, she started graduate study at Johns Hopkins, then returned to Bryn Mawr to study with Gertrude Rand and Clarence Ferree. She graduated in 1926 and stayed on at Bryn Mawr as an instructor before spending a year at Harvard University studying ophthalmology.

In 1929, Rand and Ferree invited her to join them at Hopkins, and Sloan became a full member of OSA. Except for a period working for the military during World War II, she stayed at Hopkins until she retired in 1973.

Sloan had a reputation for being an individualist as well as an excellent scientist. When the military asked her to work at what is now the Texas branch of the US Air Force School of Medicine during World War II, she stalled until it would also invite her husband and frequent colleague William M. Rowland, an ophthalmologist in private practice, to join her.

Louise Littig Sloan, also a Tillyer Award winner and among the women named in OSA’s first class of Fellows, had a reputation for being an individualist as well as an excellent scientist.

Sloan published prolifically, authoring or coauthoring more than a hundred papers during a long career. An obituary in the American Journal of Ophthalmology described her as “probably best known for the development and standardization of equipment for visual acuity testing and improvement.” OSA rewarded her long and distinguished career in ophthalmology by naming her one of five women in the society’s first class of 115 Fellows in 1959. In 1971 she became the second woman, after Gertrude Rand, to receive the Tillyer award, “in recognition of her many distinguished accomplishments in the field of vision.” She died in 1982 in Baltimore.

Madelaine Ray Brown

Madelaine Ray Brown, member number unknown, joined OSA at about the same time as O’Brien and Sloan. She stayed only briefly in optics, resigning from OSA before the 1926 member list was compiled. But she remained in medicine, graduating from the Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1927 and specializing in neurology.

It was then Brown showed the first signs of multiple sclerosis—a disease that she went on to study, along with neurology and psychology. She became a prominent physician in the Boston area. After the American Women’s Medical Association honored her in 1945, she told the Boston Globe she would continue working, despite her disease. “I’d be bored to death to give up. There is nothing courageous that gets me up. It is just to escape boredom.” In the 1950s she came to need a wheelchair for mobility, but she remained active until she died in an auto accident in 1968.

figureLouise Sherwood McDowell in the Wellesley College physics laboratory, ca. 1909–20. [Wellesley College Archives / Library and Technology Services]

Louise Sherwood McDowell

The last of the nine women to join OSA in its first decade was Louise Sherwood McDowell, who became OSA member 435 around 1925. Born in 1876, she was the only child of a banker who retired to rural New York after an illness and became a co-founder of the National Grange, an agricultural advocacy group that supported women’s suffrage.

McDowell attended Wellesley College, MA, USA, where Sarah Frances Whiting had established the second undergraduate physics laboratory in the United States (the first had been at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). After graduating in 1898, McDowell taught science, mathematics and English in secondary schools for several years, then enrolled in graduate school at Cornell University, where the chair of the physics department, Edward Nichols, supported teaching women. Her 1909 dissertation on the electrical properties of selenium was a pioneering work in semiconductors.

After graduating, McDowell returned to Wellesley College as an instructor, and in 1916 succeeded Whiting as head of the physics department. She became well known for her laboratory work, including studies of luminescence and light attenuation in glass. His expertise was so valued that NBS—which, as noted earlier, had not generally hired women scientists—hired her in 1918 to study crystal detectors for radio. She also helped to write a radio handbook, praised by Thomas Edison, for the US Army Signal Corps. NBS did not list her as a co-author at the time, but it later credited her with ending worries that women would be offended by the sight of men in shirtsleeves.

After her service with NBS during World War I, McDowell once again went back to Wellesley College, where she continued teaching and research. During World War II, she was part of a secret project to study and develop countermeasures at the Harvard Radio Research Lab. She retired in 1945. A fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, McDowell died in 1966 in Wellesley, MA.

Blazing the trail

The nine women who became OSA members in the society’s first 10 years all were pioneers in science—but they spanned half a century in age. Ladd-Franklin, born in 1847, was in many ways a trailblazer. Her mother, who died when Ladd was 12 years old, took her daughter to women’s rights talks when Ladd was only a toddler. Her father, his second wife and the rest of the family paid her way through a coeducational prep school, where she was valedictorian. But with money tight, she had to persuade the family that she was too unattractive to find a husband and would need to support herself. In 1865 she was part of the second class to enter Vassar, one of the early women’s colleges.

The nine women who became OSA members in the society’s first 10 years all were pioneers in science—but they spanned half a century in age.

At Vassar, Ladd discovered a growing interest in physics and math, but when she graduated her only option seemed to be teaching in high school, which she came to detest. Determined to continue her education, she hid behind her initials to get into Johns Hopkins, where she eventually was given a scholarship, even though she was never formally admitted. In her mid-30s, she married a math professor in his 20s, and continued research and teaching—though she never secured a regular academic post. Throughout her life she complained of discrimination by members of the male establishment who refused her access to laboratories and payment for her teaching and research.

The younger generation that followed her found more colleges open to them. All but one of the eight women who followed Ladd-Franklin as early OSA members attended Bryn Mawr. Johns Hopkins began admitting women to the medical school in 1893, but only after four daughters of the university’s original (male) trustees agreed to raise the half-million US dollars needed to pay for a new building needed for the medical school—on the condition that the school admit qualified women. That opened the door for many of the early women members of OSA to enter medicine. All but O’Brien held professional positions in science or medicine from graduation until retirement age, including those who had children. It was a big step beyond Ladd-Franklin’s struggles.

The onset of World War I and World War II helped open doors for women in optics and other sciences. After World War II, however, “there were institutional backlashes against the opportunities which had opened up for women in science and the larger defense industries during the war,” according to Joanna Behrman, assistant public historian at the American Institute of Physics’ Center for the History of Physics. Women who had filled traditional male jobs during the war were fired or pushed to resign to make room for returning soldiers.

“The increasing bureaucratization of the way science was done tended to close off opportunities that women had been able to take advantage of before the war,” Behrman adds. “Just having one good mentor could make a woman’s career possible before the war, but this was harder after the war because there were more layers of bureaucracy.”

In addition, she says, “standards of gender tightened, because the Cold War made a particular view of the family and gender roles extremely important to the identity of Americans.” Cornell University historian Margaret Rossiter wrote that women who never married and had children were considered poorly adjusted, and those who worked when they had children were considered poor mothers because they didn’t care for their offspring.

Those of us born soon after World War II saw those standards change along with the world around us. In mid-20th-century America, many colleges with strong undergraduate programs in science and engineering clung to the old idea that coeducation of men and women undergraduates was a bad idea. Even Daniel Coit Gilman, the founding president of John Hopkins, an advocate of higher education for women and a co-founder of Goucher College, thought women should be taught separately. The undergraduate school at Johns Hopkins remained limited to male enrollees until 1969. The California Institute of Technology, one of the most selective universities in the United States, did not admit women undergraduates until 1971.

Since then, women have increasingly selected science and engineering majors and become a larger presence in the scientific community. Optics is no exception. While women today still constitute only around 16% of Optica’s overall membership (a number that continues to grow), more than a quarter of its student members are women, as well as more than half of the Optica Board of Directors (including the society’s current president).

Jeff Hecht is an Optica Fellow and freelance writer who covers science and technology.

References and Resources

  • Psychology’s feminist voices: Christine Ladd-Franklin

  • Biographies and memoirs: Gertrude Rand

  • Biographies and memoirs: Louise L. Sloan

  • “Dr. Elizabeth Rebecca Laird,” Secrets of Radar Museum,, 8 March 2013.

  • “Women’s History Month: NIST’s First Female Ph.D. (Edison was a fan!)” [Louise Sherwood McDowell],, 1 March 2017.

  • “Mabel Katherine Frehofer [sic], was professor at Goucher,” Phys. Today 20(9), 129 (1967).

  • “Madelaine Ray Brown, MD,” N. Engl. J. Med. 279, 833 (1968).

  • Office of Publ. Relations, Univ. of Rochester. “Janet Howell Clark (1889–1969),” Radiat. Res. 42, 424 (1970).

  • M.W. Rossiter. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1982).

  • M. Ogilvie and J. Harvey. The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century (Routledge, 2003).

Publish Date: 01 June 2023

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