First Person: Madeleine Joullié

“Safety…I was the one who put signs on the doors in the old days.”—Madeleine Joullié, 1991

Sometimes we take safety for granted. Today’s chemistry sets are filled with innocuous chemicals designed to prevent explosions; undergraduate science laboratories utilize cookbook style teaching that doesn’t encourage experimentation; and the stereotype of the scientist always includes protective glasses. Safety is taught as one of the foundations of modern chemistry and other sciences. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always so.

Madeleine Joullié, born in 1927 in Paris, France, began her graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 1949. Joullié wanted to use the chemistry laboratory to save the world; her heroes were Madame Curie and Paul Ehrlich. Her commitment to safety throughout her career made an impact not just on her chemistry and teaching, but on many generations of chemists.

When she started at Penn, however, Joullié‘s laboratory skills needing improving (like most incoming graduate students). In her 1991 oral history interview she recalls her first summer doing laboratory work as a true learning experience:

"During that summer, nobody else was around, so I began doing some sloppy work in the lab. I remember I had an accident once with acetic anhydride all over the place. . . . for many years, we had graduate and undergraduate students working in the same lab, which in a way was good, but in another way, not so good. If you made a mistake, then all these undergraduates would see it and make derogatory remarks [laughs]."

Joullié has spent her entire career at Penn and said that chemistry was one of the worst departments when it came to issues of safety. Her own department was a natural place to focus her efforts. Joullié worked diligently as a member of the safety committee, though not without pushback: "When I chaired the safety committee in chemistry, I had unannounced inspections. They were not very popular. But I think chemistry is better now.” Improvements, however inconvenient they seem originally, save lives when explosive chemicals are being used.

Ultimately, safety in a chemistry lab is not to be taken lightly—even the most vigilant can still have accidents. A few months before Joullié’s oral history interview there was a fire in her own laboratory, which she described as “one of the low points of my career.”

"It was lucky that it happened when nobody was there. It was bad enough, but if somebody had been there, maybe we could have stopped it. You should have seen this big rotary evaporator. It looked like a Dalí painting. I tell you, when I saw that I was sick—and the smell. . . . No, that was sad. But nobody got hurt, so it was not as bad as it could have been."

Hilary Domush is a program associate in oral history at CHF. First Person, which highlights one of CHF's over 400 oral histories, appears the third Tuesday of every month.

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