Ohio State chemical engineering alumna was nation’s first female engineering PhD

Posted: March 22, 2021

Based on original article by Wenda Williamson, William G. Lowrie Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Biographical information source: Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Ruth Feng and Mary Bucher in class picture

William G. Lowrie Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering staff member Geoff Hulse had been perusing University Archives when he found a 1929 photograph of students—which included two women (lower left in photo above). Chemical engineering was dominated by men at that time, so Hulse was curious who the women were. He discovered that one woman, Mary Bucher, had obtained her MS degree in 1930 – the second woman to graduate from the department after Helen S. Crooks, who graduated in 1923.

Even more interesting was Yun Hao (Ruth) Feng. University records indicated that she had earned a Master of Science degree in chemical engineering at Ohio State in 1928, and a doctorate in chemical engineering in 1931, making her the earliest female on record for the latter.

Since Hulse’s initial research, Society of Women Engineers Archivist Troy Eller English discovered that Feng also was the first woman in the United States with a PhD in engineering. English discussed her research about Feng and other pioneering females engineers in “SWE Stories – Tales from the Archives Podcast: Breaking Boundaries Part One.” According to English, her name was Feng Yunhe in China and she was born sometime around 1898-1900. 

As the first U.S.-trained female engineering PhD, Feng made great contributions to cellulose chemistry and the development and utilization of bast fiber (fiber from plants), promoting the development of China’s fiber textile industry, particularly textiles made from the fiber found in ramie plants/grasses.

According to a Chinese Academy of Sciences biography, she devoted her life to the research and production of bast fiber from 1938 to the 1980s, and founded a ramie fiber chemical degumming and denaturation technology that helped alleviate China’s textile shortage.

In China, the fiber from the ramie plant has been used to produce thread and fabrics for thousands of years. The traditional retting method was to score the ramie skin chopped from the field, immerse it in water and allow natural fermentation, then knock, rinse and dry the ramie skin to obtain ramie fiber. Feng developed a better method.

Following her training in the U.S., Feng undertook further studies at the University of Berlin, where she conducted tests using samples of bamboo, sorghum stalks, straw, and other bast fiber from China. In 1935, using equipment at the Rayon Machinery Experimental Plant to conduct her research and after two years of painstaking research, she extracted the rayon from the pulp of the grass fiber. She found that ramie, which contains a large amount of colloid, is a good fiber material, but she wasn’t able to completely remove the colloid from it, and the problem stuck in her mind. 

Returning to China in 1936, she began experimental research on the chemical degumming of ramie. In a later report entitled “The Biography of Yunsi,” Feng described her motivation. She had witnessed the suffering of farmers who, due to war, had been unable to export agricultural products such as bast fiber, and speculated that the excess material could be used as a cotton substitute. Subsequently, “With this emotion and purpose, I determined to engage in fiber production,” she wrote. 

For the next several years, Feng used simple and crude chemical equipment to conduct degumming tests, and finally found a method to make the raw ramie material degum uniformly. She summarized it as a process of “acid first, then alkali, boiling twice with bleaching once or twice.”

In 1939, she applied her alkaline denaturation method at the Chongqing Southwest Chemical Industry Manufactory to create “Yunsi” fiber. After chemical degumming, the ramie fiber is white, clean, loose, and shiny, and its shape is like clear white clouds. Therefore, the ramie-based cloth alternative she developed was named “Yunsi.”

The factory paid one million yuan to buy a small Indian-style spinning machine with which to make Yunsi towels, cloth, quilts, clothing, pads, and mattresses. For the first time, ramie fiber could be used in spinning and weaving with various fibers on existing machines and produce high-end goods. Yunsi products contributed to solving the clothing shortage during the War of Resistance, just as Feng had envisioned.

Feng’s ramie chemical degumming process ended the traditional retting method. Her method was faster, more efficient, and ensured that quality would not be compromised during large-scale production. The process was used commercially in three textile mills in Chungking, China.

Feng became known as an expert throughout China, and the highest members of government sought her counsel. Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and other senior officials met with her periodically to discuss bast fiber and how to develop the textile industry.

Feng continued her research to further improve the material, and in 1960 developed another way to process ramie fiber: semi-viscous denaturation, or sulfonation denaturation. In 1980, per her request, the Ministry of Textile Industry and the Shanghai Municipal Planning Commission approved the establishment of a factory that combined research and production of sulfonation-denatured ramie fiber.

By 1985, the Shanghai Ramie New Technology Factory was successfully producing six categories of nearly 200 varieties of fine and coarse textiles, woolen sweaters, shirts, and other fiber-blended products. This enabled the materials to enter the ranks of high-end, exportable textiles.

On her 90th birthday, the Ministry of Textile Industry commended her tireless efforts, remarkable achievements and contributions to China’s textile industry. “You are our role model for your perseverance on scientific research and for your painstaking efforts on utilization of the specialty of the homeland, the bast fiber,” he wrote.

Feng died on December 14, 1988, in Guangzhou, having dedicated fifty years of her life to the research and production of bast fiber.