Woman of the Day: Agnes Pockels

Growing up, I remember learning of the accomplishments of many people in US and world history and more often than not, those people were men. Women received much less coverage. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that the accomplishments of women have long been minimized, dismissed, or ignored.  This is another way that sexism has played out in society. Denying the accomplishments of women is an insult. It treats them as if they’re unimportant…as if they haven’t contributed significantly to events throughout human history. In this ongoing series, I’ll be highlighting notable women, historically important women, and those women who ought to be acknowledged.  My intent is to show that women have contributed to the course of human history and ought to be recognized, rather than ignored or overlooked. Born in Venice in 1862, today’s woman of the day grew up wanting to study physics.  Unfortunately for Agnes Pockels, women were not allowed to attend college in those days.  That didn’t stop her from making important discoveries in the field of chemistry.


At a young age, Agnes Pockels was interested in science.  After finishing primary schooling, she returned home, but as was custom in the day, she was not allowed to attend institutions of higher learning (women were not allowed back then).  With her family suffering from various health related problems, and being unmarried, Pockels remained at home caring for her family members and performing the duties of a housewife. Her brother, Friedrich, who also shared an interest in physics, was admitted to the University of Gottingen and would send Agnes news in the world of physics. At age 18, in 1881, she began to study the effects of substances on water after becoming curious of the surface properties of water during that most mundane of housekeeping chores–washing dishes. Becoming aware of Lord Rayleigh’s work in surface science, Pockels wrote to him in 1891 to inform him of her discoveries. After translating the German letter, Rayleigh was astonished at Pockels’ work:


“My Lord, – Will you kindly excuse my venturing to trouble you with a German letter on a scientific subject? Having heard of the fruitful researches carried on by you last year on the hitherto little understood properties of water surfaces, I thought it might interest you to know of my own observations on the subject. For various reasons I am not in a position to publish them in scientific periodicals, and I therefore adopt this means of communicating to you the most important of them.

“First, I will describe a simple method, which I have employed for several years, for increasing or diminishing the surface of a liquid in any proportion, by which its purity may be altered at pleasure.

“A rectangular tin trough, 70 cm. long, 5 cm. wide, 2 cm. high, is filled with water to the brim, and a strip of tin about 1 1/2 cm. wide laid across it perpendicular to its length, so that the under side of the strip is in contact with the surface of the water, and divides it into two halves. By shifting this partition to the right or left, the surface on either side can be lengthened or shortened in any proportion, and the amount of the displacement may be read off on a scale held along the front of the trough.”

So astonished was he that Rayleigh suggested publishing the letter in the scientific journal Nature. Thus, on March 12, 1891, Agnes Pockels, with no proper schooling in chemistry or mathematics, had the rare and dubious honor of having her work published in a scientific journal under her name.

Failing health and eyesight meant that she was unable to continue her research for extended periods of time.  Nonetheless, in 1931, at the age of 70, she received the Laura Leonard Award and later was given an honorary PhD from the Technical University of Brunswick. Agnes Pockels passed away in 1935.





Woman of the Day: Agnes Pockels