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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Against the Current: Margaret Eliza Maltby and the Fight for Women in Physics.

An American woman hoping to make her way in science in the 19th century carried with her the knowledge that, as soon as she had a child or married, her career as a scientist was likely over. Not only did social expectations work against the continuation of her work past marriage, but in many states it was illegal for a teacher to continue her occupation after marriage, and certainly not after child birth. The opinion at the time was that the fabric of society would tear itself to shreds if women attempted to both work and raise children, and that the long arm of the law needed to be brought in to enforce the status quo, so great was the danger.

While many women kept their heads down and opted for a life of endless celibacy as the price of their scientific careers, others vocally and by their example pushed against the trend, and few more vociferously than Margaret Eliza Maltby (1860-1944). In her three decades at Barnard College, she served as a pillar of support for young women who wanted to live life beyond the Either Orness of Victorian expectations. 

Maltby came by that sense of women’s unbounded potential naturally enough. Though Margaret was born in Ohio, her family on both sides was of long Connecticut stock dating back to the first decades of that colony’s existence as a rebellious reaction against the tight authoritarianism of Puritan Massachusetts. I’d like to think that rebel streak passed itself on down through the generations to land solidly in Maltby’s parents, who encouraged her evident gifts for math and science however they could, never telling her that, as a girl, she was not suited for scientific life. They gave her machinery to play with, and provided her with the educational opportunities she needed to make the best of her mind, including enrolling her in Oberlin’s prep program to ease her way into college life.

Matriculating at Oberlin in 1878, Maltby took a robust course load across multiple scientific fields, while also making herself fluent in German, which was the language for medical, chemical, mathematical, and physical research of its time, and would play a key role in her early career. Maltby received her undergraduate degree in civil engineering in 1882, but found little outlet for it in the years to come, instead serving as a high school teacher until 1887, when she decided to return to college for a second degree, this time from MIT, which had experimented with the admission of women as students by admitting Ellen Swallow Richards in 1870, began admitting women as regular students in chemistry in 1883, and had in 1886 broken ground in awarding Master’s degrees to women. Maltby joined as a special student in the physics department, and earned her undergraduate degree in 1891 (she was not, however, as her entry on Wikipedia asserts at time of writing, the first woman to earn a B.S. degree from MIT - Richards was granted one in 1873, Caroline Woodman received one in 1889, and Lois Howe received one in 1890). 

She continued on at MIT for another two years of graduate work, publishing an important result with Charles R. Cross which established that, if you use pure enough tones, humans can distinguish between two notes after hearing as little as one half of one cycle. The next step for any physics student of the era was inevitably Germany, and particularly the University of Göttingen, which boasted some of the world’s outstanding mathematical and scientific minds, including the figure with whom Maltby would study, future Nobel laureate Walther Nernst, whom AP Chemistry students used to know as the originator of the Nernst Equation for determining electrical potentials under non-standard conditions before the College Board gutted the course in its ongoing effort to make American students even less competitive on the world stage. But I digress. Nernst and fellow electrical experimentalist Eduard Riecke set Maltby the task of measuring the amount of current to pass through solutions of high resistivity, a field of inquiry she would return to later in her career and one that required significant experimental rigor. 

Pure water does not like conducting electricity. As recent research has shown, you can force it to do so by compelling a chain of water molecules to exchange protons down the line, creating a flow of positive charge, but by and large, to get current to flow, and really get some bang for your buck when you drop a toaster in the bathtub of your sworn enemy, water needs to have stuff dissolved in it. Drinking water, ground water, and sea water are all positively awash in various salts that, when placed in water, separate out into negative and positive ions. When you introduce an electrical source into that water, say for example a toaster in the bathtub of your sworn enemy, you introduce positive and negative terminals that those ions flock to, and react with, creating a closed circuit that allows a flow of charge through the liquid.

Investigating the boundary between water as insulator (when it is pure) and water as conductor (when it is filled with salt ions) is a tricky business, involving tight control over a substance that rebels against it. Water on its own loves slorping up darn near anything it comes in contact with - it didn’t get the title of Universal Solvent for no reason - and keeping its ionic content within a small and minutely determined zone in order to measure conductivity at extremely low levels of ionic solute required an experimental finesse that Maltby possessed in spades. Her work on this problem was deemed to be of such fine quality that not only did she become the first American woman to receive a physics PhD in Germany (1895) but her work was published in the Zeitschrift für Physikalische Chemie, perhaps the world’s premiere chemical journal at the time.

Maltby followed up this impressive start with yet more detailed and rigorous work determining the wavelength of alternating currents, when suddenly in 1896 something happened, and she returned abruptly to the United States for two years, breaking off her research and teaching at Wellesley and Lake Erie College. For years that change was something of a mystery, but recent DNA testing has cleared up what likely occurred. In late 1896 after the conclusion of the Fall quarter at Wellesley, she took a leave of absence from work, citing the “consequence of an accident” as the reason behind her inability to teach classes the following term. She had in fact become pregnant, and in order not to end her career utterly needed to seclude herself during the final months, giving birth to her child, Philip, in June of 1897. If you have been reading this series for a while, you have already seen this story play out a few times with women of the late 19th century, and know what is coming next. Standard procedure in these cases was to seek isolation during the last half of the pregnancy and birth, to then leave the child in the care of family or an institution, depart for a while, and then, upon returning, “adopt” the child as one’s own, claiming it as a close family member (to explain any resemblances) or a foundling. 

Maltby stayed true to formula, returning to Germany in 1898 to become the first woman with the title of research assistant at Charlottenburg’s Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, where she worked for a year deepening her results on the conductivity of water containing different types of ions, findings which were published in 1900 in a monumental 77 page report which established values used by physicists and chemists throughout the scientific community for decades to follow. By 1899, she was back in the States, for a short time at Clark, and in 1900 taking up the position that would define the rest of her career, at Barnard College, the women’s college associated with Columbia University. She was originally hired to head the department of chemistry there, with the expectation that, as soon as a replacement could be found, she would be allowed to transfer to and head the physics department. Perhaps encouraged by the stability of this new position, and by the passage of time, she formally adopted Philip in 1901, claiming that he was the child of a deceased friend. 

Maltby and Philip

One might wonder, did Maltby attempt to marry Philip’s father at any point? We can’t know of course, but a comment of hers from 1922 is illuminating, stating that life with Philip gave her, “all the pleasures of family life without the disadvantage of supervision by a ‘better half.’” It is hard to argue with that assessment - by not marrying, she could continue working at universities, and by hiding her pregnancy and reconnecting with her son later, she gained lifelong companionship and the pleasures of children and later grandchildren. The danger, of course, was that if her deception was discovered it would have been the end of her scientific and social life, the times being what they were, but lacking that discovery she truly did seem to be living the best of both worlds for her era.

Maltby’s experience with Philip likely colored her interactions with the young women in her care at Barnard who were attempting to navigate the same Victorian social minefield that she had successfully passed through. When the dean of Barnard threatened to fire Harriet Brooks in 1906 if she went forward with her plan to marry, Maltby went to bat for the young teacher, arguing that marriage need not stand in the way of a robust research career. As we have seen in our profile of Brooks, the dean ultimately did not back down from her position, but once she left, Maltby encouraged other women to follow the dual path of matrimony and career if they desired it, including Frances Orr Severinghaus. 

From 1903 to 1931, Maltby ran the Barnard physics department, making it one of the elite physics programs in the nation, boasting a robust array of classes in electricity that went deeper than their Columbia counterparts, and expanding the physics laboratory to include new electrical apparatus that soon consumed two floors. She was made an associate professor in 1913, but was never promoted to a full professorship in spite of her status as chair of the Barnard physics department. 

Maltby finally retired from Barnard at the age of seventy-one, having seen the department rise from makeshift origins to a respected force and originator which pushed forward the study of the physics of music and electricity, and the history of physics, as courses available to undergraduates. After retirement, she enjoyed her time with Philip’s family, though the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 had effectively wiped out the financial resources that she had previously employed in her favorite activity, world travel. Margaret Maltby passed away in 1944 in New York’s Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center at the age of 83, having unveiled some of the rules by which the universe plays its grand game, while artfully avoiding the rules of her own time that placed arbitrary limits on the roles she could play, and the worlds she could investigate.


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