Investor’s Business Daily
By Sonja Carberry
June 22, 2009
Innovate: Mary Pennington’s experiments helped solve what made people sick
Mary Engle Pennington knew that seeing was believing.
To convince Philadelphia’s ice cream vendors of the early 1900s that their equipment was crawling with contagions, the chemist showed them slides of specimens from sterilized and unsterilized ice cream buckets.
Microscopic bugs on the latter spurred those street vendors to change their ways.
Pennington’s quiet victories saved untold lives at a time when unsanitary practices and food-borne illnesses were rampant.
The first woman on the U.S. Department of Agriculture payroll, she taught dairy and egg farmers how to get their products to market safely and developed hygienic techniques for handling chicken.
Mixing facts with finesse, the personable chemist swayed food manufacturers to clean up their act.
Nicknamed the Ice Lady for her push to keep food cold, Pennington perfected the refrigerated box car for railroads and furthered refrigeration technologies for home and industrial uses.
She even invented a precursor to the ubiquitous egg carton.
“Because of her innovations, the whole (food) industry was able to keep moving forward,” said Kate Hertzog, author of “More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Pennsylvania Women.”
“She didn’t want glory. She just really cared that people got food that did not make them sick,” Hertzog told IBD. “She truly cared about science.”
It all started with a library book.
Pennington’s parents, Henry and Sarah, moved from Nashville, Tenn., to Philadelphia shortly after her birth in 1872. There the curious adolescent spent hours in the family garden observing nature.
Pennington was 12 when she cracked open a chemistry book and discovered atoms and molecules.
“Like a flash of light in a dark place, I got the idea of the realness of the invisible world,” she said in “American Women of Science.”
Overflowing with questions, she walked four blocks from her home to the University of Pennsylvania.
Pennington’s inquisitiveness impressed chemistry professors, who told the plucky youngster to come back when she was older — even though the university didn’t award degrees to women at that time.
Fortunately for her, Henry, a label manufacturer, backed his daughter’s desire to attend college. And Sarah gave up dreams of Mary’s debut into Philadelphia’s social life to stand behind the studious girl.
For Pennington it was beakers, not ballrooms.
It was also a certificate, not a degree. On her graduation in 1892, the University of Pennsylvania stated that she had completed equivalent class work, but it stopped short of awarding her a bachelor’s in chemistry.
The rules were different for doctoral degrees, curiously enough, and she was able to earn a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from Penn in 1895.
Besides teaching, which Pennington did at a women’s college, professional opportunities for female chemists were rare.
So she formulated her own.
After surveying local doctors on their needs, she opened the Philadelphia Clinical Laboratory in 1898 and earned a reputation for excellence.
When the city needed someone to run its new Health Department laboratory, Pennington was the name on everyone’s tongue.
Her first order of business in 1904 was milk. Too many people were getting sick from drinking it. So Pennington went straight to dairy farms for field research.
By working alongside milk producers, she earned their trust and respect. When she called for regulations that would change their procedures, those farmers supported her.
The standards she developed gained nationwide acceptance. They also drew the attention of Harvey Wiley, chief chemist at the USDA and a force behind the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act.
He needed people who could tackle problems on both a human and a scientific level. Take the civil service exam so you can apply to the USDA, Wiley urged Pennington, but use the initials M.E. instead of Mary. That bit of subterfuge made her the first woman at the USDA.
By 1908, Wiley had promoted her to chief of a key facility. In short order, Pennington expanded the Food Research Laboratory from two to 55 employees.
When asked if she kept using M.E. to hide her gender, she applied levity rather than righteousness.
“If you had to sign as many government documents as I had to sign, you would wish your name had fewer letters than the name Pennington,” she told a magazine.
In that 1932 article, Pennington described arriving for a meeting with a railroad executive and being told Mr. Railroader was not available because he was expecting an important government official shortly.
“I thought this rather queer,” she said. “Then it suddenly dawned on me.” The exec was expecting a man.
Instead of taking offense, Pennington broke the ice. “Tell your boss my name, that I’ve traveled a long way and request another appointment,” she instructed the assistant.
Soon her identity was established, and the meeting was on. “Mr. Railroader and I had many a good laugh about it afterward,” she said.
A pragmatist to the core, she faced failure by changing her methods.
Take the 1911 libel suit the USDA lost against an egg firm it had accused of using unsafe practices.
In a classic work-around, Pennington approached three competing egg plants. “Use my sanitation and refrigeration techniques,” she told them, “and you’ll gain consumer trust and a competitive edge.”
The companies that cooperated were soon overwhelmed with orders. Egg firms realized they had to conform to survive.
With World War I straining the country’s food resources, the War Shipping Administration tapped Pennington to evaluate its 40,000 refrigerated train cars; food often spoiled en route.
Pennington rode the rails for thousands of miles, checking thermometers and sensors strategically placed on the cars. By the end, she reported that only 3,000 were fit to use.
First of all, the refrigerator cars lacked sufficient insulation. “That’s why she called them camouflaged box cars,” said John Bromley, director of historic projects for the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Iowa.
To ensure consistent cooling, those railroad cars needed better structure, circulation and drainage — investments Pennington insisted would pay off in the long run.
“The idea of refrigeration really opened up markets, particularly in California,” Bromley told IBD. “The refrigerator cars are the most expensive freight cars in the system. But without those improvements, the business never would have gotten as far as it did.”
U.S. Food Administration chief Herbert Hoover awarded Pennington a Notable Service Award in 1919. The standards she established would endure for decades.
To further her work in refrigeration, Pennington left the USDA soon after World War I for a position with American Balsa Co., a refrigerator insulation manufacturer.
After three years, Pennington decided she could make a bigger splash as a consultant. She opened an office in New York City’s prestigious Woolworth Building.
Pennington was working with the American Institute of Refrigeration when she died of a heart attack in 1952 at age 80.
Publication:IBD; Date:Jun 22, 2009; Section:Leaders & Success; Page Number:A4