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By Hattie Lloyd on

Remembering Frances Micklethwait

Assistant Curator Hattie Lloyd recently came across an object in our stores that helped her discover the fascinating work of British chemist, Frances Micklethwait.

I’m part of a team preparing to move over 300,000 objects from the Blythe House object store in London, to a new storage facility at the National Collections Centre in Wiltshire.

The project involves studying and photographing the collection so we better understand the items we care for in the Science Museum Group Collection.

As you might imagine, items relating to chemistry in the collection often contain hazardous substances. Indeed, there is probably no such thing as risk-free chemistry, as Frances Mary Gore Micklethwait (1867- 25 March 1950) would have known.

Working under Martha Annie Whiteley at Imperial College, Micklethwait was part of an all-female team of chemists investigating chemical weapons, including mustard gas, during the First World War.

One anecdote holds that Micklethwait and her colleagues would test the mustard gas on themselves, studying the blisters that erupted on their skin. In 1919, Micklethwait was awarded an MBE for this secret war work.

Samples of azobenzene-based dyes made by Micklethwait and Morgan (from left to right): aniline yellow, chrysoidine, Manchester brown and azobenzene.
Samples of azobenzene-based dyes made by Micklethwait and Morgan (from left to right): aniline yellow, chrysoidine, Manchester brown and azobenzene. The red labels are used to indicate the presence of hazards.

It was through identifying chemical hazards in the collection that I first came across Micklethwait. While researching certain chemical substances and how they joined the collection, I found that the objects had been made by Dr G. T. Morgan and Miss Frances Micklethwait.

Between 1904 and 1914, Micklethwait collaborated with Sir Gilbert Thomas Morgan at the Royal College of Science (later Imperial College London). Their research included the study of azobenzene compounds, often used as dyes.

Making small changes to the chemical structure of azobenzene causes different wavelengths of light to be absorbed, meaning that the colour of the dye can be altered. The fruits of their collaboration are looked after by the Science Museum Group, but until now their makers were not recorded.

Today (25 March) marks the anniversary of Micklethwait’s death.

As Patricia Fara notes, the research for which Micklethwait was awarded an MBE was necessarily secret, which helps explain why little was known about her. Even the year of Micklethwait’s birth is debated.

Micklethwait has no entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (just over 5% of science and technology biographies in the ODNB are for women currently). Yet according to Marelene and Geoff Rayner-Canham, Micklethwait was “one of the most prolific women authors” among her contemporaries. Between 1904 and 1906, Micklethwait published three papers a year on average in the Journal of the Chemical Society.

Now thanks to new research as part of our ambitious project to move 300,000 objects to their new home, one more woman is represented in the Science Museum Group Collection.

Delve into interesting stories of how chemistry affects the world around you in our online series.