Emma Perry Carr

Emma Perry Carr. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Emma Perry Carr. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Emma Perry Carr (1880–1972) was born in Holmesville, Ohio. Her father and grandfather, both country doctors, valued and encouraged education for their children. After Carr graduated high school, she entered Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college in Massachusetts. She did not graduate from Mount Holyoke, however, but transferred first to Ohio State and then to the University of Chicago, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1905. After spending a short time back at Mount Holyoke as an instructor, she returned to the University of Chicago to earn her Ph.D. in 1910. Then it was back to Mount Holyoke to join the faculty.

Mount Holyoke had a long tradition of training women chemists, and Carr set out to make the program even stronger. She personally taught freshman general chemistry, a task that would normally have fallen to a junior instructor, to ensure that the students’ first exposure to chemistry was one that would impress and inspire.

Emma Perry Carr. Courtesy Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections.

Emma Perry Carr. Courtesy Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections.

Even so, Carr felt that the influence of a good classroom teacher was not enough. Students, she believed, should be engaged in real, hands-on research in order to understand and appreciate how chemistry works. To this end she initiated a research program at Mount Holyoke. She pursued investigations in ultraviolet spectroscopy, a method for studying materials by looking at how they respond to ultraviolet radiation, and spent a year (1919) in a lab at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, to learn more about the technique. More international collaboration followed, and a few years later she traveled to Switzerland for a research year at the University of Zürich. Her work led to a better understanding of the nature of double bonds between carbon atoms in molecules.

During World War II Carr’s research program expanded to drug research. Women chemists were suddenly in demand, since men were off fighting the war. Like the Fiesers and Robert Burns Woodward, Carr’s group tried to synthesize drugs for treating malaria. Quinine, the most effective antimalarial drug, is a natural remedy made from the bark of the cinchona tree. Most of the world’s cinchona trees were grown in Southeast Asia, which had been conquered by the Japanese army, cutting off the United States from most of its sources of the drug. Substitutes were badly needed, but sadly Carr’s group never found one during the course of the war.

Carr retired from Mount Holyoke in 1946, the year after the war ended, but stayed engaged with science and education until her death in 1972.

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