WASHINGTON – After a 42-year career in which she invented artificial emeralds, helped find a way to get more oil out of gasoline and shattered glass ceilings, Buffalo native Edith M. Flanigen got her just reward Thursday: the nation’s highest award for inventors.
President Obama presented Flanigen and eight other scientists with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, which goes to the nation’s top inventors, in a White House ceremony in which the president also honored 10 people with the National Medal of Science.
And he got a laugh from the crowd when he threw his arm around the diminutive 85-year-old Flanigen as a Marine read a densely technical citation describing her work.
Inventors such as Flanigen are hugely important to the nation’s development, the president said.
“The story of these trailblazers reflect our larger American experience – our story of constant transformation, pushing against limits,” Obama said. “These folks represent the spirit that has always defined us, one of restless inquiry, searching for the right solution to any problem; an inclination to dream big and to tinker and to pull things apart and put them back together again; an insistence on making our dreams come true.”
Flanigen said in an interview that her dreams began in a classroom at Buffalo’s Holy Angels Academy, where a teacher named Sister Saint Mary introduced Flanigen and her two sisters – who would also become scientists – to the marvels of chemistry.
“She was a very good teacher,” Flanigen said. “She inspired all three of us.”
Flanigen went on from there to become class president and valedictorian at D’Youville College, and to win a graduate degree in chemistry from Syracuse University.
Moving on to a job at Union Carbide in Buffalo in 1952, Flanigen launched to a career that culminated in the president draping a medal around her neck while a Marine lauded her “innovations in the fields of silicate chemistry, the chemistry of zeolites, and molecular sieve materials.”
In more commonplace terms, Flanigen helped develop a way of manufacturing more gasoline from every barrel of oil, as well as a way to extract organics out of paint. In total, she invented more than 200 synthetic materials, including the synthetic emeralds that Union Carbide marketed for years.
She did that at a time when there were far more women in the nation’s kitchens than in its laboratories. And while that fact occasionally posed a challenge or two, Flanigen got by – and then some – through her skills and with the aid of two male mentors. “There were some obstacles, but to tell you the truth, they were not serious enough to block my advancement,” Flanigen said.
That’s for sure. After all, on Thursday, Flanigen – who is now retired and living in White Plains – shared a stage with other award winners who developed the nation’s first computer science curriculum, who invented a vaccine to stop the cancer-causing HPV virus, and who invented the flash drive.
Not surprisingly, Flanigen couldn’t resist wearing a little jewelry for the occasion: a necklace laced with emeralds – the ones she invented.