Glimpses of a Young Woman Working in Laboratories 1959-1963

Log tables: an essential tool for scientists in the era before cheap calculators and computers.

Log tables: an essential tool for scientists in the era before cheap calculators and computers.

It was Robyn Arianrhod’s book, Seduced by Logic, that prompted me to write this series of posts about my mother’s working life and her education in maths and science.  Arianrhod’s book is about two female mathematicians, one from the eighteenth century and the other who lived in the nineteenth century.  These women made significant contributions to the scientific revolution that swept Europe (read my review here).

I had given my father a biography of Newton for the last birthday he had before he died so I was thinking of him while reading the book. I had not expected this book to trigger thoughts about my mother, yet there it was – a discussion of spectroscopy on pages 181-2.

Through spectroscopy scientists can understand more about an object by analysing the light it emits or absorbs.  My mother worked as a technical assistant in a spectroscopy laboratory while she was studying maths and physics at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).

It is over fifty years since my mother worked in spectroscopy.  Much has happened since then so understandably her memories of the jobs she held in the early 1960s are hazy albeit punctuated with snippets of clarity.

Slide rule

My mother used this slide rule while studying maths and physics at RMIT from 1959.

My mother’s first job after leaving school was at the Defence Standards Laboratories (DSL) at West Maribyrnong in Melbourne.  There she assisted with emission spectroscopy used for metallurgical analysis.  Two graphite rods were placed either side of a sample of the material being tested, then the material was bombarded with electric sparks.  Glass plates were used to record photographs of the process.

At DSL my mother recalls her boss, Mr. Baird, setting up the samples to be tested and using a large cylindrical slide rule.  Slide rules and log books were essential tools for scientists before the era of calculators and sophisticated computers.

Mum’s job was to load the glass plate, develop it, read the spectrographs which were on the plates and record the results.  She particularly remembers one sample that her team analysed as it was metal from an airplane which had crashed.

While the vast majority of technical assistants at DSL were male, another woman worked as a technical assistant in the same laboratory as my mother.  She was employed as a Technical Assistant Grade 2 (TA2) whereas my mother was a Technical Assistant Grade 1.   This indicates that the other woman either had a degree or a Diploma and experience as this was required in order to be classified as a TA2. These were the days when women did not work after they married.  The married woman who led work in the mass spectroscopy laboratory at DSL was an exception.  She had a PhD in this field.

After some time working at DSL, my mother gained a position working with atomic absorption spectroscopy at the Chemical Research Laboratories (CRL), a division of CSIRO.

Before my mother arrived at CRL, Dr Alan Walsh, a scientist working at these laboratories, made a significant breakthrough in spectroscopy.  He invented a technique to analyse materials that is known as atomic absorption spectroscopy.  Up until then spectroscopy had measured light emissions from material, the process that Dr Walsh pioneered examined the absorption of light by materials. In his biographical memoir of Dr Walsh, Peter Hannaford has listed the fields that have used atomic absorption spectroscopy – medicine, agriculture, mineral exploration, metallurgy, food analysis, biochemistry and environmental monitoring.  It has world-wide application and continues to be used today.

Aside from his scientific research Dr. Walsh is remembered for his character.  “He had an enormous personality and was marvellous to work for”, said my mother. “He was a brilliant and inspiring leader”.  Mum worked directly under Dr Walsh as well as under other scientists in atomic absorption spectroscopy.  My mother remembers using a vacuum chamber, dentist drills (not on teeth) and weighing tiny quantities very precisely.  She weighed the samples in a climate controlled chamber and used fifteen figure log tables to do the necessary calculations.

She was responsible for cleaning glassware used in the laboratory and other cleaning tasks.  Occasionally she would be sent to the glassblowers’ laboratories to ask them to make a vessel to a specified design.


For many years Mum kept a memento of her days at DSL.  The gray, foot long, plastic boxes which had held the graphite rods used for spectroscopy made an ideal container for her knitting needles.  She threw them out in a big clean up last year.  I was astonished.  I had used these boxes for years but had never read the blue writing on the lid.

“There was no question I always liked science”, commented my mother when recalling how much she enjoyed this work.  In 1963 she married my father who she had met while working at DSL. Following convention she stopped working.  However, this was not a reluctant resignation.  “I resigned when I got married because I wanted to”, she said.

Her memories reveal another attitude that was prevalent at the time.  She was told by one of her bosses that they preferred to employ women as technical assistants because they took direction better.  “Looking back, it could have also been that they also had only to be paid half the salary of a male on the same level” Mum reflected.  “We thought that was fair, since a man had to support a family.”

While my mother did things that would be regarded as unusual for the time, in other respects she followed the expectations of society at the time.  This makes me reflect on our attitudes today.  Many of us do something that challenges gender stereotypes, even if it is something little (hands up all those women who take out the garbage for kerbside collection or mow the lawns).  However, at the same time we adhere to other gender stereotypes in either our actions or our attitudes.  Often we are not aware of the dissonance between our stated beliefs and our actions.

Everyone, including men, has something to contribute towards breaking down the prejudices and stereotypes which are hampering our society.  Some people will do this quietly and in obscurity like my mother while others will take a more dramatic approach.  Real change will occur through a variety of actions and approaches by a large number of people over a sustained period of time.

While my mother left work upon marrying and had children, her education and work in science did not end – but I will leave that story for another post.

This is the second in a series of posts about my mother’s education and work in science and maths.  In the next post in this series I share the story about how my mother came to work as a programmer. Click here to read the first post where I share my mother’s memories of her school education in Victorian country high schools of the 1950s. 

2 thoughts on “Glimpses of a Young Woman Working in Laboratories 1959-1963

  1. Your mother was a pioneer for young women like I was in the early 1970’s. I worked in the steel technical laboratories at Port Kembla from 1974-2011, initially as a Trainee Metallurgist while studying part time at the University of Wollongong. I was married when I joined the company in 1974 which was quite radical. I progressed from Young Graduate Metallurgist to a Manager with 30 males working for me. By 1974 females were on equal pay where I worked, but this was not always the case in other labs in Australia.

    I have been a role model and mentor for girls and young women in non Traditional Careers over the years. Now I am retired I am a member of committees on technical issues with Australian Standards and the International Organisation for Standards as well as Australia’s National Nuclear Safety Committee.

    Great to read your Mother’s story !


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