Dr. Edith Marie Flanigen

    May 2005:

    Dr. Edith Marie FlanigenThe month of May is when the Chicago Section presents the Gibbs medal for achievements in chemistry. As many of you already know, a jury of 12 highly qualified scientists chooses the award winner. A number of years ago, one of the jury members was Edith Flanigen. I thought it would be appropriate to highlight Edith’s accomplishments in our continuing series highlighting vignettes of women in chemistry, provided by the Women Chemists Committee.

    Edith Flanigen synthesized new generations of molecular filter materials with applications in the petroleum refining and petrochemical industries. During her 42-year career at Union Carbide and UOP, Flanigen invented or co-invented over 200 synthetic materials. Her work with zeolite Y made oil refining more efficient, cleaner, and safer. The discovery and development of molecular sieve materials is among the most significant advances in inorganic materials in the second half of the 20th century. This work has generated a billion-dollar/yr industry.

    Edith Flanigen was born in Buffalo, New York. She received a Chemistry (magna cum laude) from D'Youville College and an M.S. in inorganic-physical chemistry from Syracuse University in 1952. In 1983, Dr. Flanigen received a Doctor of Science, Honoris Causa, degree from D’Youville College.

    Upon her graduation from Syracuse University in 1952, Dr. Flanigen joined Union-Carbide Corporation as a Research Chemist working in the field of organosilicone chemistry. Flanigen and her two sisters all worked at Union Carbide at a time when few women were making strides in the sciences. In 1956, Dr. Flanigen moved to the molecular sieve group to work in the field of silicate chemistry and molecular sieve materials. In 1973, Dr. Flanigen became the first woman at Union Carbide to be named Corporate Research Fellow, and in 1982, Senior Corporate Research Fellow, the highest technical position at Union Carbide. In 1988 she was named Senior Research Fellow with UOP, a joint venture of Union Carbide and Allied Signal, and was promoted to UOP Fellow in 1991. In 1994 she retired from UOP.

    She has received a number of honors and awards including Outstanding Woman Scientist, New York Academy of Sciences (1996); the Francis P. Garvan – John M. Olin Medal of the American Chemical Society (1993); the Perkin Medal of the Society of Chemical Industry, American Section (1992); the Chemical Pioneer Award of the American Institute of Chemists (1991); and the Distinguished Service Award of the Western New York Section of the American Chemical Society (1990). She received the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, recognizing her contributions to technological progress and invention; she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2004 for molecular filters for petroleum processing. Edith has been an inventor or co-inventor of more than 100 patents.

    Flanigen is considered by her peers to be the foremost authority on zeolite chemistry and materials. Her discoveries have brought thousands of new scientists into the field and have expanded the scope of potential functionality for porous materials like molecular sieves.

    Flanigen credits a high school chemistry teacher for sparking her interest in chemistry. “She really made it exciting,” comments Flanigen. “We did hands-on laboratory work … and I think I fell in love with … chemistry at that time.”

    "First of all, you have to love (what you do), because if there is any other reason for going into it, it won't work. Secondly, you have to be yourself. You have to recognize your unique characteristics and what your talents are. You have to know what you can do and what you can't do” - Edith Flanigen.

    I consider that to be great advice for succeeding in any endeavor, and it couldn’t be said any better. Edith Flanigen, pioneer, achiever, great chemical scientist; she makes us all proud to be chemists.

    — Written by Dr. Barbara Moriarty