Lois Bey - First Woman Graduate in Chemical Engineering at IIT
The doors of the chemical engineering discipline, both professionally and academically, were not always open and welcoming to women. This held true even at Illinois Institute of Technology, a school widely recognized for offering educational opportunities to students regardless of economic status, religious affiliation or race. The gender barrier remained in the chemical engineering department at IIT until 1950 when Lois Bey made history as the program’s first female graduate.
Bey’s determination led her to pursue higher education during a time when opportunities may not have necessarily been open to her and despite the warnings of her mother. She commented, “I was a stubborn child and ignored what she [mother] told me. I did not like her or others trying to mold me into something or somebody I did not like.”
Research lead her to the conclusion that a career in engineering suited her the best and she enrolled at IIT in the chemical engineering program after a brief time studying at Wight Junior College. She recalls that though she was the only woman in the program at the time, her professors maintained a neutral attitude towards her and that her male classmates did not have a problem accepting her. On June 9, 1950, she made history as the first woman to graduate from the program.
Bey then embarked upon a 43-year career in which she faced many challenges as a female engineer. When searching for her first job after IIT, many companies showed resistance towards hiring a woman. It wasn’t until Curtis Wellbourne, president of Underwriters’ Laboratories, decided to give Bey a chance in gratitude for the role woman played for his company during World War II. This move that was not well-received by Bey’s supervisor and eventually left the position due to the inequitable treatment she endured. She faced many of the same obstacles at her next positions with the Armour Research Foundation and F.M. DeBeers Associates.
A job offer to serve as the chief librarian for Baxter Laboratories prompted a career change for Bey. She played a major role in building the Baxter information resource center, which conducted technical and patent searches and wrote medical articles and company brochures. She held the position for 27 years before being hired by the Stepan Company. Bey retired in 1993 and currently lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Bey’s influence on women engineers is immeasurable. She is recognized by the Society of Women Engineers as a pioneer in the industry and a lifelong member. The IIT Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering also presented Bey with its 2001 Distinguished Alumni Award in honor of her legacy as the first woman graduate of the department. Her senior photo hangs in the department’s administrative office today as an inspiration to its women students.
Speaking to future generations of women engineers, Bey said, “I just hope that today’s young ladies don’t face the discrimination I faced before college, during college and after college.”
Crosslinks, Fall 2006 Article