Jean Lassila

Honored by:Zora Zimmerman
Brick location:K:15  map

            One spring day in 1960, my mother became, in a small-scale, localized fashion, a legend in her own time. She was taking one of several cumulative exams in her Yale doctoral program in organic chemistry. PhD candidates had to pass eight of these lengthy, difficult tests before graduating; she had passed six. During the exam—or it might have been before; she didn’t remember by the time she told me about it, years later—she went into labor. But she stayed through the exam, finished it, and went to the hospital to give birth to me.

            My mother, Jean Day Lassila (1934–2008), received her doctorate from Yale in 1961. Women made up a very small fraction of the chemistry PhDs that year, and she had been the only woman in her research group. But she never had a single complaint, even when I asked for the dirt. She was enormously proud of having gone to Yale. When I expostulated on how hard it must have been to finish a dissertation with a baby to take care of, she said it was no trouble; she had done the lab work and she just had to write it up. Some of her classmates still have memories of me crawling around on the lab floor. (Ron Magid ’64PhD also remembers me squalling during lectures, but “only when the ‘distinguished guest’ was a wretched speaker.”)

             As our article “The Pioneers” shows (page 42), none of the first seven women who received PhDs at Yale combined an academic life with marriage and children. Whatever their individual reasons, as female academics they had stepped far outside the social norms of their era—possibly too far to try, or want to try, to step back in. But for my mother, both family and work seemed possible and essential. At the University of Wyoming, where she learned to love chemistry, she met and became engaged to my father, Kenneth E. Lassila ’62PhD, a physics major. (They graduated first and second in their college class. It must have irked her endlessly to come in second.) They went to Yale together, and were married in Battell Chapel on Old Campus.

            My parents moved to Iowa when my father got a job offer from Iowa State University; he was quickly tenured, and there they stayed. My mother co-authored three introductory chemistry textbooks, which went through several printings. She also did research at ISU. Her most important papers are still referenced in new research every year—a small but steady stream of citation, showing that, although I cannot tell you what her paper “Direct Observation of Ketene Intermediates in Photochemical Reactions” means, it has become part of the intellectual architecture of her area.

            But social norms and academic possibility diverged in my mother’s life. No teaching post ever came open for her at ISU. How much that had to do with her particular skills, how much to me and my two brothers and the household and all our needs, and how much to any doubts at ISU in those days about hiring women with children into science jobs, I don’t know. She eventually stopped doing research, and after she and my father divorced, became an academic adviser at ISU and later an assistant to the dean. I think the loss of her intended career caused her pain. She told me once, toward the end of her life, that she wasn’t very good at lab work and so never should have gone into chemistry. But remembering how proud she was of her work, and how focused and absorbed she was during all those hours at home when she was typing out notes and drafts on her mechanical Royal at the dining table, I don’t agree.

            Women are still scarce in the physical sciences. The Yale administration and the Yale Women Faculty Forum stress, among other things, mentoring and networking. If older women help to pave the way, younger women don’t need to feel that they’re quite as far outside the norms.

            That applies even for those of us who didn’t choose science careers. On my first day in freshman organic chemistry at Yale—I was one of a handful of young women in a roomful of young men—I got into a conversation with the boy on my left before our professor arrived. When I told him my name, he did a double-take. “Didn’t your father write a chemistry textbook?” he asked.

            “No,” I said. “My mother.” And thanks to her, I was surprised, just for an instant, that he would get it wrong.


Printed in the Yale Alumni Magazine, authored by Kathrin Lassila (daughter)