Willey Glover Denis

I found this interesting bio in "Women in Chemistry" by Marelene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham. I think this story shows how difficult it was for women to pursue their interests a century ago, but it is also a story of amazing determination and persistence. I feel like this woman was circling the world of science and medicine, trying so hard to make an inroad, willing to try anything that would get her closer to her goal.

Willey Glover Denis (1879-1929)

Denis earned her A.B. 1899 from the H. Sophie Newcomb College for Young Women of Tulane University in modern languages.

Dennis then went on to - you guessed it - Bryn Mawr where she studied for two years. It was at Bryn Mawr that she got interested in - you guessed it - chemistry and geology.

Dennis then went back to Tulane and was awarded the MA degree from Tulane.

In 1905 she entered the University of Chicago to begin her doctorate in organic chemistry. Her thesis involved studies of the oxidation of aldehydes, ketones and alcohols. She also did research in physiology and published a paper on the effect of group one and two metal ions on nerve transmission. It was this study that got her interested in medicine.

Dennis taught at Grinnell College for a year and then joined the USDA. In 1909 she left the USDA, apparently because of perceived limitations on her advancement. At that point she entered medical school, dropped out, reentered and then dropped out again because of harassment. After her last attempt at medical school, she became a research assistant of Otto Folin at the Harvard medical school. She worked on and off with Folin for about a decade (intermittently leaving to do research at Tulane and to take some physiology classes). Her collaboration with Folin was very productive. In 1912 and 1913, Denis was sole author on three papers and coauthor of 18. That is a lot of papers!!!

In 1920, Denis was appointed to the faculty of the department of physiology and physiological chemistry of the medical school of Tulane University. It is believed that this was probably the first appointment of a woman to a major medical school in the United States. She rose through the ranks at Tulane and eventually headed the newly developed department of biological chemistry there.

Denis had 99 publications in her career. One of her biggest achieverments was to adapt the Folin-developed urine test for use in blood analysis. She died just short of her fiftieth birthday of breast cancer. She had gone blind, but telephoned her department each week to discuss research progress. Denis was never recognized for her contributions.

[ B a c k t o H i s t o r y o f C h e m i s t r y ]