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Madeleine Jacobs

  • Born: November 11, 1946, Washinton, D.C.

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0669
Interview Date: May 28, 2009
Location: American Chemical Society, Washington, D.C.
Interviewer: Hilary Domush
No. of pages: 65
Minutes: 189

  Abstract of Interview

Madeleine Jacobs grew up in Washington, D.C., the younger of two children.  Her father was a musician, her mother a secretary.  The television program Watch Mr. Wizard convinced her she wanted to be a scientist, in particular a chemist.  Jacobs went to school in the wake of Sputnik, during which time there was much more support and better resources for education generally, and science education specifically. Jacobs feels that she had very good teachers and classes throughout junior and senior high school.  Her parents were supportive of her ambition to pursue science, and she always earned top grades in all her subjects.  

Jacobs submitted a limited number of college applications, largely because the cost of applying to colleges put a strain on her middle class family.  She matriculated into George Washington University with a full scholarship.  She found the professors involved and engaging and loved her experiences there; her summer work to earn money at a government agency involved studying lipid transport in cockroaches.  She married after college, planning to enter Stanford University’s PhD program in chemistry, but her husband had been drafted, and they had to spend two years in Washington, D.C.  Jacobs began a master’s program at the University of Maryland, but she quit after a year.  She had always loved writing and wrote extremely well, so she applied for a job with Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN).  At C&EN, she became interested in gender equality of chemists, in particular the disparity between the salaries of women and men chemists. This interest in gender equality has lasted her entire life.

Initially, Jacobs worked in Washington, D.C., and continued working for C&EN when she moved to California with her husband.  After six months in California, she left to return to D.C., where she worked for C&EN for two more years.  After a short stint as a writer at National Institutes of Health, she spent five years as a science writer, and then became head of media relations and publications at the National Bureau of Standards.  From that position, Jacobs’ career took her to the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Public Affairs, beginning as science writer and ending as its Director.  At this job, she became interested in attracting diverse audiences to the museums.  During her time at the Smithsonian, the slogan, “The Smithsonian is for everyone” was coined.  When she left there, she was awarded the Secretary’s Gold Medal for her efforts in outreach, especially to underrepresented peoples.

After fourteen years at the Smithsonian, Jacobs returned to C&EN to become managing editor.  After one and a half years, she became editor-in-chief, a title she held for eight and a half additional years.  At C&EN, she reawakened her interest in women in chemistry.  She initiated “The Scorecard” to document the progress of women on chemistry faculties.  Finding this scorecard effective in making faculties sit up and take notice on the disparity between the number of male and female professors, she began a scorecard for industry.  

After ten years at C&EN, Jacobs became the first woman and first person without a PhD to become Chief Executive Officer of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the position she holds today.  Her responsibilities include running a staff of two thousand people, including the ACS scientific publishing operations, Chemical Abstracts Service and ACS Publications; serving on the ACS Board of Directors; fundraising; and outreach to universities, government, industry, and the nonprofit world.  She continues her interest in promoting gender equality and minority representation.  She sees science education and literacy as a path to improvement of everyone’s life.

Throughout the interview, Jacobs discusses the need for self-confidence, especially among women.  She firmly believes that a science education provides  an important analytical way of thinking, one that is useful for everyone.  She discusses the change in her perspective of life due to her breast cancer and extols her second marriage and husband.


1968 B.S., Chemistry, George Washington University
2003 D.Sc. (Honoris causa) George Washington University

  Professional Experience

Chemical & Engineering News, American Chemical Society

1969 - 1973

Assistant Editor

Chemical & Engineering News, American Chemical Society

1993 - 1995

Managing Editor

Chemical & Engineering News, American Chemical Society

1995 - 2003


Public Information Office, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

1972 - 1974

Writer, Editor

National Bureau of Standards

1974 - 1979

Writer, Editor

National Bureau of Standards

1978 - 1979

Chief, Media Liaison & General Publications

Office of Public Affairs, Smithsonian Institution

1979 - 1986

Assistant Director and Chief Science Writer

Office of Public Affairs, Smithsonian Institution

1986 - 1987

Acting Director

Office of Public Affairs, Smithsonian Institution

1987 - 1993


American Chemical Society

2004 - present

Executive Director & Chief Executive Officer



Smithsonian Institution Gold Medal for Exceptional Service


Abbott Laboratories Distinguished Scientists Speaker, Abbott Park, Illinois


Ruth Evelyn Sanders Distinguished Lectureship, Texas Christian University


16th Annual William S. Johnson Symposium in Organic Chemistry Keynote Speaker, Stanford University


New York Academy of Sciences Women’s History Month Award


75th Canadian Society for Chemistry Lecturer, Edmonton, Alberta


UOP Invitational Lectureship, Des Plaines, Illinois


Samuel R. Scholes Jr. Lecturer, Alfred University, Alfred, New York


Jack A. Gerster Memorial Lecturer, University of Delaware, Newark


ADVANCE Lecturer, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


ACS Award for Encouraging Women into Careers in the Chemical Sciences


George M. Braude Memorial Lecturer, ACS Maryland Section


Award for Executive Excellence, sponsored by Commercial Development and Marketing Association and the Chemical Heritage Foundation


American Crystallographic Association Public Service Award


William E. Mahoney Annual Lecture in Chemistry, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Pittsburgh Chemical Day Keynote Speaker


Distinguished Laboratory for Molecular Sciences Lectureship on Science and Education, California Institute for Technology


Trustees Council of Penn Women Lecturer, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia


Sylvia M. Stoesser Lecture in Chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Moses Passer Lecturer, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York


Invited Panelist, Innovation Economy Conference, Washington, D.C.


Edith Kreeger Wolf Visiting Professor, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Years 1

Raised in Washington, D.C.  Father musician; mother secretary.  Musical brother.  Watch Mr. Wizard.  Always loved science, especially chemistry.  Sputnik.  Increase in government support for science education.  Good science classes throughout junior high school and high school.  National Science Foundation program at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.  Always got good grades.  Parents supportive.

George Washington University 6

Enough money to apply to four colleges only.  Offered full-tuition scholarship to George Washington University.  Older brother studying computer science at University of Maryland.  Summer jobs: camp counselor; biology assistant; studying lipid transport in female cockroaches.  Naval Research Laboratory.  Did extremely well in all subjects.  Loved writing.

Life after College 15

Engaged to physics student from high school class.  Married after college.  Accepted to Stanford University.  Husband drafted; return to D.C. for two years.  Began master’s degree at University of Maryland, working in Bruce Jarvis’s lab.  Quit after only one year.  Renewed interest in helping women.  Project Seed.

Chemical & Engineering News and Other Work 22

Looking for one-year job, accepted editorial assistant position at Chemical & Engineering News.  Continued working for C&EN when she returned to Stanford with her husband.  After six months left husband to return to D.C.  After three years left C&EN for National Institutes of Health; then Bureau of Standards.  Head of media relations and publications.

Smithsonian Institution 29

Becomes science writer, then assistant director, in Office of Public Affairs.  Discusses responsibilities.  Museum of the American Indian.  Heye Foundation.  “The Smithsonian is for everyone.”  Secretary’s Gold Medal for her accomplishments.  Promoted to Acting Director, then Director of Smithsonian.

Back to C&EN 34

Returns as managing editor of C&EN.  Revives interest in women in chemistry.  Invents “The Scorecard” first for academia and then for industry.  Discusses importance of life outside work; promotion of women scientists with such programs as National Science Foundation’s Advance grant; her struggle with breast cancer; loss and regaining of self-confidence.  Becomes editor-in-chief.

American Chemical Society 47

First woman and first person without PhD to become Chief Executive Officer.  Discusses accomplishments and challenges of job; president’s functions vis-à-vis CEO; testifying before the U.S. Congress; fundraising; meetings; overseeing publications.

General Thoughts 51

Science trains certain style of thinking, effective in most walks of life.  Wants to improve science education and literacy in order to improve living for all.  Describes some of her favorite things from her travels.  Extols her second marriage.

Index 54

  About the Interviewer

Hilary Domush

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007-2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis

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