Nation’s first female PhD in engineering was Ohio State chemical engineering alumna

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Ruth Feng PhD 1931 and Mary Bucher MS
Yunhe “Ruth” Feng, shown at far left in the first row, was the first female on record to obtain a PhD in engineering in the United States. She was also the first woman to obtain a PhD in chemical engineering in the United States, having obtained her chemical engineering MS in 1928 and her PhD in 1931. This photo was scanned from a University publication. The caption read "1930 AIChE Student Chapter, the first to include women."

“A picture can say a thousand words…” But a few words of explanation are sometimes needed. Such was the case when CBE staff member Geoff Hulse came across a 1929 photograph of AIChE students—which included two women.

Hulse had been perusing University Archives when he found the 1929 picture. Chemical engineering was almost exclusively dominated by men at that time, so Hulse was curious. Who were these women? Hulse found that one woman, Mary Bucher, had obtained her MS degree in 1930--the second woman to graduate from the department after Helen S. Crooks, who graduated in 1923.

Even more interesting was Yunhe (“Ruth”) Feng*.  Department and University records, as well as research performed by Society of Women Engineers Archivist Troy Eiler English, indicated that Feng had earned a master of science degree in chemical engineering at Ohio State in 1928 and a doctor of philosophy in chemical engineering in 1931, making her the first woman in the United States to obtain a doctoral degree in chemical engineering.

English discussed her research about Feng and other pioneering female engineers in a podcast titled "SWE Stories - Tales from the Archives Podcast: Breaking Boundaries Part One." (Learn more at SWE Stories – Tales from the Archives Podcast: Breaking Boundaries Part One.)  In China she was referred to as Feng Yunhe in China and she was born sometime around 1898-1900. 

As the first US-trained female chemical engineer, Dr. Feng made great contributions to cellulose chemistry and the development and utilization of bast fiber (fiber from plants), promoting the development of China’s fiber textile industry, particularly textiles made from the fiber found in ramie plants/grasses.

Dr. Feng devoted her life to the research and production of bast fiber from 1938 to 1988 and founded a ramie fiber chemical degumming and denaturation technology that helped alleviate China’s textile shortage while utilizing unexportable ramie stockpiles that had been accumulating due to war.

“The life of a scientist belongs to science.” – Yun-Hao “Ruth” Feng

In China, the fiber from the ramie plant has been used to produce thread and fabrics for thousands of years. The traditional retting method was to score the ramie skin chopped from the field, immerse it in water and allow natural fermentation, then knock, rinse and dry the ramie skin to obtain ramie fiber. Feng found a better method.

Following her training in the United States, Dr. Feng undertook further studies at the University of Berlin, where she conducted tests using samples of bamboo, sorghum stalks, straw, and other bast fiber from China. In 1935, using equipment at the Rayon Machinery Experimental Plant to conduct her research and after two years of painstaking research, she extracted the rayon from the pulp of the grass fiber. She found that ramie, which contains a large amount of colloid, is a good fiber material, but she wasn’t able to completely remove the colloid from it, and the problem stuck in her mind. 

Returning to China in 1936, she began experimental research on the chemical degumming of ramie. In a later report entitled “The Biography of Yunsi,” Dr. Feng described her motivation. She had witnessed the suffering of farmers who, due to war, had been unable to export agricultural products such as bast fiber, and speculated that the excess material could be used as a cotton substitute. Subsequently, “With this emotion and purpose, I determined to engage in fiber production,” she wrote. 

For the next several years, Yun-Hao Feng used simple and crude chemical equipment to conduct degumming tests, and finally found a method to make the raw ramie material degum uniformly. She summarized it as a process of “acid first, then alkali, boiling twice with bleaching once or twice.”

In 1939, she applied her alkaline denaturation method to denature ramie at the Chongqing Southwest Chemical Industry Manufactory to create “Yunsi” fiber. After chemical degumming, the ramie fiber is white, clean, loose, and shiny, and its shape is like clear white clouds. Therefore, the ramie-based cloth alternative she developed was named “Yunsi.” It was a revelation—beautiful, smooth, and cool to the touch, “like meeting the spring in the snow.” 

The factory paid one million yuan to buy a small Indian-style spinning machine with which to make Yunsi towels, cloth, quilts, clothing, pads, and mattresses. For the first time, ramie fiber could be used in spinning and weaving with various fibers on existing machines and produce high-end goods. Yunsi products contributed to solving the clothing shortage during the War of Resistance, just as she had envisioned. The clothing and quilts were especially popular.

Feng’s ramie chemical degumming process ended the traditional retting method. Her method  was faster, more efficient, and ensured that quality would not be compromised during large-scale production. The process was used commercially in three textile mills in Chungking, China.

Dr. Feng became known as an expert throughout China, and the highest members of government sought her counsel. Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and other senior officials met with her periodically to discuss bast fiber and how to develop the textile industry.

Feng continued her research to further improve the material, and in 1960 developed another way to process ramie fiber: semi-viscous denaturation, i.e., sulfonation denaturation.

In 1980, per her request, the Ministry of Textile Industry and the Shanghai Municipal Planning Commission approved the establishment of a factory that combined research and production of sulfonation-denatured ramie fiber. A year after starting work on the project, she won third prize for the new process in the 1981 National Science and Technology Invention Awards.
By 1985, the Shanghai Ramie New Technology Factory was successfully producing six categories of nearly 200 varieties of fine and coarse textiles, woolen sweaters, T-shirts, shirts, and other denatured ramie fiber-blended products. This enabled the materials to enter the ranks of high-end, exportable textiles.

After 1983, the international demand for bast fiber fabrics increased continuously, and the domestic cultivation of ramie and industrial production of ramie fabrics also expanded.

By this time, Feng was 80 years old, but she still worked day and night, traveling the country to guide the denaturation, spinning, dyeing, and printing of various types of bast fiber such as flax, hemp, and jute.

On her 90th birthday, the Ministry of Textile Industry commended her tireless efforts, saying that she had made remarkable achievements and contributions to China’s textile industry. “You are our role model for your perseverance on scientific research and for your painstaking efforts on utilization of the specialty of the homeland, the bast fiber,” he wrote.

Dr. Feng was born some time around 1889-1900 and died on December 14, 1988 in Guangzhou, having dedicated fifty years of her life to the research and production of bast fiber.

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*Dr. Feng's name has variously been spelled in English as Yunhao, Yun-Hao, and Yunhe.

Biographical information source: Chinese Academy of Sciences

Category: History Makers
Tag: alumni