You are not logged in. Login

Profiles: Engineers of the Past

The history of women in engineering is a long and rich narrative, filled with individuals who stood out for their accomplishments and innovations. From prior to the acceptance of women into academic institutions, when a number of women pursued engineering studies privately, through the 20th century when women broke down academic and professional barriers, the contributions of women to the Civil Engineering profession cannot be overstated.

Each of the engineers below has had an impact on the profession, and has helped pave the way for future generations of engineers to have more opportunities for success.

Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards (1842 – 1911)
Emily Warren Roebling (1843 – 1903)
Catherine Anselm "Kate" Gleason (1865 – 1933)
Lillian Gilbreth (1878 - 1972)
Nora Stanton Barney Blatch (1883 – 1971) 

Olive W. Dennis (1885 – 1957)
Elsie Eaves (1898 – 1983)
Evelyn Barstow Harrison (1910 – 2000)
Beatrice Hicks (1919 - 1979)
Marilyn Jorgenson Reece (1926 – 2004)

Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards (1842 – 1911)


  • Ellen Henrietta Swallow RichardsKnown primarily as the founder of home economics and for her contributions to sanitary engineering, including the training of a generation of sanitary chemists
  • In 1868, at the age of 26 she enrolled in Vassar College, graduating in two years with a B.S. in chemistry
  • Seven months after graduating from Vassar, she became the first woman to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • In 1873 received a second B.S. in chemistry from MIT and an M.S. from Vassar
  • Working with William Nichols, she became an expert on water and sewage analysis. Her water analysis was the foundation for the National Chlorine Map, a standard for sanitary surveys.
  • Devised a method to determine the amount of nickel in various ores, and became authority in the chemical analysis of ores.
  • Discovered Samarskite (a rare ore) and was the first to isolate the element Vanadium.
  • In 1876, she successfully arranged for funding by the Women's Education Association of Boston for a Woman's Laboratory at MIT.
  • In 1879, became the first woman member of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers.
  • In 1884 she received a salaried faculty appointment at the new Laboratory of Sanitation Chemistry. In the new laboratory Richards expanded her research to include the chemical analysis of staple foods. She translated her growing knowledge of nutrition into practical applications.
  • Introduced biology into the MIT curriculum and helped to establish the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
  • In 1890 she opened the New England Kitchen in Boston, which informed people about nutrition and food preparation. A similar kitchen was created at the World's Fair in Chicago three years later.
  • In 1899 she organized a conference in Lake Placid, New York that served as the basis for the American Home Economics Association.
  • In 1910, she received an an honorary Ph.D. from Smith College in honor of her achievements as a sanitation engineer and a chemist
  • Publications included Sanitation in Daily Life (1907), Laboratory Notes on Industrial Water Analysis: A Survey Course for Engineers (1908), and Conservation by Sanitation (1911).

Back to top 

Emily Warren Roebling (1843 – 1903)

 Emily Warren Roebling

  • Responsible for the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge
  • Studied mathematics and science, and in 1899, she obtained a law degree from New York University.
  • Following the death of her father-in-law, Brooklyn Bridge designer John A. Roebling, and her husband Brooklyn Bridge chief engineer,Washington Roebling’s failing health, she became integral in seeing plans for the Brooklyn Bridge carried out: Every day, she went to the site to convey her husband's instructions to the workers and to answer questions. She kept records, answered the mail, and represented her husband at social functions.
  • In addition to conveying her husband’s messages, she also began studies of her own on the technical issues, learning about strength of materials, stress analysis, cable construction, and calculation of catenary curves.
  • When delays and cost increases led some to propose that Washington Roebling be removed as chief engineer, she delivered an address before the American Society of Civil Engineers, resulting in Roebling’s continued leadership of the project.
  • When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, it she rode with President Chester Arthur across bridge.
  • Active in civic organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Huguenot Society, and other civic organizations

Back to top 

Catherine Anselm "Kate" Gleason (1865 – 1933)


  • First woman to become a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers
  • First woman to become a member of the American Concrete Institute.
  • The first woman to serve as president of a national bank
  • In 1884, despite a lack of thorough engineering training , attended Cornell University as a "special student" to study mechanical arts
  • Also studied part-time at the Sibley College of Engraving and the Mechanics Institute.
  • Started her career at her father's machine-tool factory. By 1893, she and her father had designed and perfected a cost-effective and time-efficient machine capable of producing beveled gears, which resulted in the factory becoming the leading U.S. producer of gear cutting machinery prior to World War I
  • In 1918 became the first woman elected to membership in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) largely due to her reputation in the machine-tool business
  • In 1930 served as ASME's representative to the World Power Conference in Germany
  • From 1917 to 1919, Kate Gleason served as the president of the First Bank of Rochester bank, the first woman to serve as president of a national bank
  • Developed a new method for pouring concrete and she began selling low-cost concrete box houses in East Rochester, New York
  • Rochester Institute of Technology named their College of Engineering after her.

Back to top 

Lillian Gilbreth (1878 - 1972)


  • Gilbreath, LillianKnown as the “Mother of Modern Management” and America's “First Lady of Engineering”
  • One of the first working women engineers to hold a Ph.D.
  • In 1900, received her Bachelor's degree in Literature from the University of California at Berkeley
  • In 1902, earned her Master's degree in Literature from the University of California
  • In 1915, earned her Doctoral degree in Psychology from Brown University, the first person to earn a degree in industrial psychology
  • Became the first American engineer ever to create a synthesis of psychology and scientific management
  • Presided over the Women's Branch of the Engineers' “Hoover for President” campaign.
  • Under the Hoover administration worked on and headed the women's section of the President's Emergency Committee for Employment in 1930, where she worked to gain the cooperation of women's groups for reducing unemployment and she created the successful nationwide program, "Share the Work," leading to the creation of many new jobs.
  • In 1929 joined the Girl Scouts as a consultant, later becoming a member of the board of directors, and remained active in the organization for more than twenty years.
  • During World War II, worked as a consultant for the government, overseeing the conversion of factories to military bases and war plants, and provided expertise on education and labor (particularly women in the workforce) for organizations such as for the War Manpower Commission, the Office of War Information, and the United States Navy.
  • In later years, she served on the Chemical Warfare Board and on Harry Truman's Civil Defense Advisory Council.
  • During the Korean War, served on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.
  • In 1925 began lecturing at Purdue University, leading to a visiting professorship
  • In 1935, she became the first woman engineering professor at Purdue;
  • In 1940 she was granted full professorship in 1940, dividing her time between the departments of industrial engineering, industrial psychology, home economics, and the dean's office where she consulted on careers for women.
  • In the School of Industrial Engineering, she helped establish a time and motion study laboratory, and transferred motion study techniques to the home economics department under the banner of "work simplification".
  • In addition to her work at Purdue, she was also appointed Knapp Visiting Professor at the University of Wisconsin's School of Engineering, and taught at other universities including the Newark College of Engineering, Bryn Mawr College, and Rutgers University
  • Received numerous awards and honors, including 23 honorary degrees from such schools as Princeton University, Brown University, and the University of Michigan.
  • In 1926 she was accepted to the membership of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, becoming its second woman member.
  • In 1941, she was made an honorary member of Mortar Board by the Purdue University chapter of the esteemed national honor society.
  • In 1944 ASME later awarded both her and her husband (posthumously) the Henry Laurence Gantt Medal for her contributions to industrial engineering.
  • In 1950, she was the first honorary member of the newly-created Society of Women Engineers, receiving membership number 1
  • In 1954 named Alumna of the Year by the University of California's alumni association.
  • In 1964, at the age of 86, she became resident lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • In 1965, became the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
  • In 1966 she received the Hoover Medal for her "contributions to motion study and to recognition of the principle that management engineering and human relations are intertwined.... Additionally, her unselfish application of energy and creative efforts in modifying industrial and home environments for the handicapped has resulted in full employment of their capabilities and elevation of their self-esteem".
  • In 1984, the United States Postal Service issued a 40¢ Great Americans series postage stamp in Gilbreth's honor, the first woman psychologist to be commemorated.
  • The highest honor bestowed by the Institute of Industrial Engineers is the Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Industrial Engineering Award
  • At Purdue University, the Lillian M. Gilbreth Distinguished Professor is an honor bestowed on a member of the industrial engineering department
  • Additionally, the Society of Women Engineers awards the Lillian Moller Gilbreth Memorial Scholarship to deserving female engineering undergraduates.
  • Lillian and her husband Frank have a permanent collection in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
  • Lillian and Frank’s papers are housed in The Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Library of Management at Purdue University.
  • Credited with many inventions, including the foot-pedal trash can and refrigerator door shelves

Back to top 

Edith Clarke (1883 – 1959)


  • The first woman to earn an Electrical Engineering degree from MIT.
  • In 1908, she earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and astronomy from Vassar College
  • Graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1918 with a master's degree in electrical engineering
  • From 1919, until her first retirement in 1945, worked as an engineer for General Electric
  • In 1921 received a patent for her graphical calculator, which was used to solve electric power transmission line problems
  • In 1926, Edith became the first woman to deliver a paper before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.
  • In 1947 she became the first woman to teach engineering at the University of Texas, where she taught electrical engineering until her retirement in 1956

Back to top 

Nora Stanton Barney Blatch (1883 – 1971)


  • Blatch, Nora BarneyAmerican civil engineer, architect, and suffragist
  • First woman admitted to the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1905, however it was only as a “junior” member.
  • Grand-daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Following the examples set by her mother and grandmother, Nora also became active in the growing women's suffrage movement.
  • Studied Latin and mathematics at the Horace Mann School in New York, beginning in 1897, returning to England in the summers. Moved to the United States in 1902
  • In 1905 graduated from Cornell University, becoming the first woman to earn a degree in civil engineering
  • In 1906, she was accepted as a junior member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE),
  • In 1906 began work for the New York City Board of Water Supply.[1][2]
  • In 1909 began working as an engineer for the Radley Steel Construction Company.
  • Worked for the New York Public Service Commission as an assistant engineer
  • Worked for the Public Works Administration in Connecticut and Rhode Island as an architect, engineering inspector and structural-steel designer
  • Nora continued to work for equal rights for women and world peace, and in 1944 authored World Peace Through a People's Parliament.

Back to top 

Olive W. Dennis (1885 – 1957)


  • Olive Dennis was the first woman to become a member of the American Railway Engineering Association
  • The second woman to graduate from Cornell University with a degree in civil engineering
  • Earned a master's degree in math and astronomy from Columbia University
  • In September 1920, began work as draftsman in the engineering department for the Baltimore and Ohio (B & O) Railroad
  • In November of 1921, she was made the engineer of service with the responsibility of improving passenger service on the B & O
  • Invented and held the patent for the Dennis ventilator, a ventilator in the windows of passenger cars that was controlled by passengers
  • Instrumental in making a number of features standard for rail travel, including air-conditioned passenger cars, dimming overhead lights, reclining individual seats, stain-resistant upholstery

Back to top 

Elsie Eaves (1898 – 1983)


  • Eaves, ElsieFirst Woman to be elected Associate Member, Member, Fellow, Life Member, of the American Society of Civil Engineers
  • Earned her civil engineering degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1920
  • Founding member of the American Association of Cost Engineers (now AACE International)
  • Created the first official national report of post WWII construction
  • In 1926 she started working for McGraw-Hill in New York City for the Engineering News-Record Department.
  • In 1927, she was the first woman admitted to full membership to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
  • In 1945, she became the manager of Business News
  • In 1957, became the first woman to be admitted to the American Association of Cost Engineers in 1957
  • She retired in 1963, but continued practicing as an adviser to the National Commission on Urban Affairs on the subject of housing costs
  • Advised the International Executive Service Corps about construction costs in Iran
  • In 1974 she received the George Norlin Silver Medal, the highest alumni award given by the University of Colorado
  • In 1979 she became the first woman to receive an honorary lifetime membership to the American Association of Cost Engineers.
  • First woman and first civil engineer to be elected as Member, American Association of Cost Engineers (originally only chemical engineers eligible).
  • First woman elected as Chapter Honor Member, Chi Epsilon Fraternity.
  • First woman to receive the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award from the College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado.
  • First to receive the Honorary Life Membership Award from the American Association of Cost Engineers
  • First to receive the International Executive Service Corps "Service to Country" Award
  • First to receive the Award of Merit from the American Association of Cost Engineers

Back to top 

Evelyn Barstow Harrison (1910 – 2000)


  • First woman to receive an engineering degree at the University of Maryland
  • Graduated with a B.S. in civil engineering in 1932
  • Serve as the first director of the Federal Women's Program of the Civil Service Commission, which sought equal opportunity for women in federal employment practices.
  • Chaired the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women
  • President Kennedy presented her with the Federal Women's Award.
  • Served on several top level Boards, Commissions and Committees while working in the White House Personnel Office .
  • Worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt on the President's Commission on the Status of Women
  • Served on the Advisory Committee of the Office of Economic Opportunity
  • Contributed greatly to the White House Conference on Civil Rights, Equal Employment Opportunities and the Aging.
  • After leaving federal service she became a consultant to the General Council of HUD, the Bicentennial Commission, and the National Council of Negro Women .
  • Her entrance into the University of Maryland’s Engineering Program was noted by the Washington Post article “Tomboy Complex Causes Coed to Study Engineering” Washington Post, Nov 10, 1928
  • Her graduation was marked by a follow up Washington Post article “Law is Ultimate Ambition of Girl, 21, Civil Engineer: First Woman to Finish Maryland U. Course Popular in Class” Washington Post, Jun 12, 1932

Back to top 

Beatrice Hicks (1919 - 1979)


  • In 1950 became first president of the Society of Women Engineers  
  • She received a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Newark College of Engineering (now known as New Jersey Institute of Technology) in 1939
  • Earned a master's degree in physics from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1949
  • Received honorary doctorates of science from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 1958, and from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1965.
  • In 1941, Beatrice became the first female employee of Western Electric.
  • After her father's death in 1946 she joined his company Newark Controls Company as vice president and chief engineer. In 1955 she became president of the company.

Back to top 

Marilyn Jorgenson Reece (1926 – 2004)


  • Designed LA’s I-405/I-10 San Diego/Santa Monica Freeway interchange, one of the busiest and most photographed in the world.
  • The first woman in California to be registered as a civil engineer
  • Earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1948
  • Worked for the State Division of Highways (which later became Caltrans), as a junior civil engineer in Los Angeles.
  • The only woman out of 1,500 applicants In 1954, after six years of required experience to sit for the Professional Engineer's Exam, Reece became the state's first fully licensed female civil engineer.
  • In 1962, she received the Governor's Design Excellence Award from Gov. Pat Brown for the San Diego-Santa Monica freeway interchange.
  • Shortly after, Reece became the Division of Highway's first woman resident engineer for construction projects.
  • The I-405/I-10 Interchange is now named the "Marilyn Jorgenson Reece Memorial Interchange" in her honoe
  • During her 35-year career, Marilyn Jorgenson Reece's projects included serving as senior engineer for the completion of Route 210 through Sunland in 1975—at the time, the largest construction project the Department of Transportation had ever awarded—at $40 million.
  • After retiring in 1983, taught engineering classes at Cal State Long Beach
  • In 1983, during Women's History Month, the Los Angeles City Council honored Marilyn Jorgenson Reece for making significant contributions to the city.
  • In 1991, Marilyn Jorgenson Reece received life membership in the American Society of Civil Engineers.
  • The three-level San Diego-Santa Monica freeway interchange, which opened in 1964, was the first interchange designed in California by a woman engineer.
  • To honor Reece’s accomplishments, on March 4, District 7 unveiled a permanent bronze plaque in the Headquarters Museum. District Director Mike Miles served as master of ceremonies for the event, attended by about 45 friends, family members, current Caltrans staff and former coworkers. Event speakers included Kathy Caldwell, president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and Sutida Bergquist, president of the Los Angeles Section of Professional Engineers in California Government.

Back to top 

Back to Civil Engineering and Women's History