First women students at Penn

First women at Penn
Photo credit: University Archives

In 1914, the School of Education conferred the University’s first bachelor’s degrees to women. But women had actually been a presence (albeit a small one) at Penn since decades earlier.

On Oct. 13, 1876, Gertrude Klein Peirce and Anna Lockhart Flanigen enrolled as special students in the Towne Scientific School, which is the present-day School of Engineering and Applied Science. Peirce and Flanigen had met at Women’s Medical College and were the first women to be admitted to collegiate courses, which customarily led to a University degree. As special students, however, Peirce and Flanigen were not eligible for a degree.

Both took courses in the Department of Chemistry and earned certificates of proficiency in 1878. Peirce continued her studies in a post-graduate course in 1878 and 1879 and co-authored a paper with Edgar Fahs Smith, a Penn chemistry professor and Provost, on the products obtained in the nitration of meta chlorsalicylic acid. Flanigen studied in Berlin and at London University College under Scottish chemist and Nobel Prize winner Sir William Ramsey. She earned her doctorate at Penn in 1906 and became a professor of chemistry at Mount Holyoke College.

In this photograph, taken in 1878, Peirce (at left), stands with Flanigen (middle), and Mary T. Lewis in the chemistry lab. Lewis earned her certificate of proficiency in 1880, and after her time at Penn, became active in the New Century Club and the New Century Guild for Working Women in Philadelphia. She also became interested in the movement for granting equal political rights and duties to women and was a close friend of suffragist Susan B. Anthony.

For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at

Originally published on March 4, 2010