Joan Berkowitz

Joan Berkowitz

Joan Berkowitz.

Joan Berkowitz was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1931. She loved science even as a child. As a young student, she carried out a particularly impressive science project on weather systems that earned the highest praise from her teacher, who proclaimed Berkowitz was destined to be a scientist.

After attending Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and graduating in 1952 with a B.A. in chemistry, Berkowitz decided to pursue graduate studies in physical chemistry. She set her sights on Princeton University but was prevented from enrolling because the Princeton chemistry department did not accept women into their graduate program. Instead, Berkowitz earned her Ph.D. in physical chemistry at another chemistry powerhouse: the University of Illinois. She went on to do postdoctoral work at Yale.

In 1957 Berkowitz began working for the technology consulting firm of Arthur D. Little. There she conducted research into high-temperature materials. Much of this work was done to help NASA develop materials for building spacecraft. She was especially concerned with oxidation-resistance at high temperatures and found that a material called molybdenum disilicide (MoSi2) resisted oxidation at high temperatures better than just about any other material known. She also experimented with using electrical fields to prevent oxidation. In other areas, Berkowitz did research on a material called gallium arsenide (GaAs), which is used to make solar panels, and she was one of the first chemists to use computers to predict the behavior of substances before they were tested in the laboratory.

Working her way up the corporate ladder at Arthur D. Little, in 1980 she became head of a division called Environmental Business World Wide. She left the firm six years later to become CEO of an environmental consulting company, Risk Science International, in Washington, D.C. Then in 1989 she cofounded her own consulting business with Alan Farkas, called Farkas Berkowitz and Company.

As an environmental chemist, Berkowitz has studied the effects of processes to reduce the particulate emissions (see Frederick Cottrell) from coal-burning power plants. Solid particulate matter is a serious form of air pollution that can cause many respiratory illnesses. She also investigated “scrubbing,” a technique that removes sulfur dioxide—which can cause acid rain when it enters the atmosphere—from coal exhaust by means of a reaction of the sulfur dioxide with calcium carbonate. Also, while still at Arthur D. Little, Berkowitz led the team that created a multivolume index of all commercially produced substances that could harm the environment. Later she contributed to reports on hazardous waste treatment at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Academies of Science, and to periodical surveys of the waste treatment industry produced by Farkas Berkowitz.

From 1959 to 1977 she was married to Arthur Mattuck, a mathematics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with whom she had one daughter, Rosemary. At a time when women were expected to quit their jobs when they became pregnant, Berkowitz worked through her pregnancy up until two days before giving birth and returned to the lab two weeks later.

Berkowitz has received many honors in her long career. Most notably, she was president of the Electrochemical Society in 1979–1980, the first woman ever to hold that position.

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