Virginia Rice Williams: A Legacy of Scientific Contributions by a Woman in Chemistry

by Gretchen Schneider and Shelly Kleinpeter | LSU Chemistry

Virginia Rice Williams HallBATON ROUGE, October 2020 — Nestled between the grand live oaks along Tower Drive and Choppin Hall stands Virginia Rice Williams Hall. Dedicated in 1977, Williams Hall has been the academic home for chemistry lecture rooms, teaching laboratories, and the previous chemistry library.

What many may not know is that Williams Hall is currently the only academic building on Louisiana State University’s Baton Rouge campus named after a woman. 

Virginia Rice Williams Hall represents a legacy of scientific contributions by a woman in chemistry.

Virginia Rice William’s Early Years

Born in North Little Rock, Arkansas in 1919, Virginia Rice had a passion and talent for music and science from a young age. It was her brother’s chemistry set that sparked her interest in science.

In a 1967 interview with State-Times Advocate, Rice recalled her first successful experiment as a child that entailed gathering flowers from the yard and watching them fade in a chlorine solution. Fearful she would not succeed as a concert pianist, Rice decided to pursue a career with her other passion: science.

Rice attended Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in chemistry in 1940. She then attended the University of Arkansas and completed her Bachelor of Science in Human Ecology (B.S.H.E.) in foods and nutrition in 1941.

Rice married Hulen B. Williams in 1942 and moved to Baton Rouge. As newly married graduate students at LSU trying to live on $120 per month as graduate assistants, Rice decided to work a second job as a lab technician in nutritional research at the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station in Baton Rouge. Hulen Williams would later become a professor of chemistry and head of the department in 1956. In 1976, he was named dean of the College of Chemistry and Physics.

Rice and Williams wedding Virginia Rice and Hulen Williams on their wedding day, 1942 (State-Times Advocate, 1967)

In 1944, Virginia Williams earned her master’s degree in foods and nutrition from LSU and was appointed as instructor and research associate in chemistry. While her husband was serving in the Navy for two years during World War II, Williams decided to stay in Baton Rouge and work towards a doctoral degree in biochemistry. She earned her Doctor of Philosophy in 1947 researching the nutritive factors of bacteria, particularly the role of biotin. Williams remained at the university for a career in teaching and research.

Williams’ Louisiana State University Career

In 1948, Williams was appointed as an assistant professor of chemistry and assistant nutritionist at the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station.

Her research focused on enzymes, rice, and ways humans digest foods. Over the next three decades, she worked up the faculty ranks to associate professor of chemistry in 1953, associate professor of agricultural chemistry and biochemistry in 1957, and professor of agriculture chemistry and biochemistry in 1961.

Williams gained international attention for her work in the field of enzymology. Her research examined the role that biotin played in the synthesis of fatty acids. Over the course of her career, Williams published more than sixty scientific papers, many of which contributed to the understanding of the fundamental chemical composition of rice.  Her research on vitamin B, nutrition, and the metabolism of bacteria led to her 1954 election as the first LSU faculty member to the American Society of Biological Chemists. 

In addition to her pursuit of excellence in research, Williams was passionate about her students' learning in the classroom. Emeritus Professor James Traynham described her as being full of charisma and dedicated to teaching. Traynham recalled the witty introduction Williams would always present at the start of a new semester.  

Virginia Rice Williams
Virginia Rice Williams (State-Times Advocate, 1967).

“When she would share her research interest to the students, she would say ‘and Rice is my middle name’ and laughter would erupt,” Traynham said.

In 1967, Williams and her husband co-authored Basic Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences, which was rated one of the best introductory textbooks in its field by The Journal of Chemical Education.

As a chemistry undergraduate student, alumnus William Bushey (BS, 1967) worked for Virginia and Hulen Williams in solving the textbook’s problem sets. According to Bushey, the exciting opportunity to assist in the development of the textbook strengthened his chemical knowledge and contributed to his success.   

“It was an honor to work with such a distinguished biochemist but, to be honest, the best part for me was receiving a $50 paycheck at a time when gasoline was selling for 25 cents a gallon," Bushey said.  

During her time at LSU, Williams also helped establish a local chapter of Iota Sigma Pi, a national honor society for women in chemistry and related fields. In 1949, a petition for a chapter of Iota Sigma Pi was submitted by eligible chapter members and Williams became the official faculty sponsor. Williams also served as the Iota Sigma Pi’s national secretary from 1954-1957 and as the permanent national historian starting in 1960.   

"Williams showed so many women that they can leave an impact on the STEM world, and we strive to do the same," said Caroline Schneider, chemistry senior instructor and president of the Chlorine Chapter of Iota Sigma Pi. "One way we carry on Williams's legacy is through our outreach to inspiring female scientists. It lets them know that women can be chemists and leaders in this field." 

With impactful outreach efforts influencing young females, college student populations are becoming more diverse in STEM disciplines. However, women faculty are still underrepresented in STEM disciplines in universities across the country.

“In 2014, LSU was recognized as #1 in chemistry for women PhD graduates in the nation, but we still have a long way to go until women are equally represented at higher-ranked faculty positions” Schneider said. “Iota Sigma Pi aims to provide a safe environment and support for the women scientists at LSU and other universities as well as local chemical industries in southeast Louisiana."

Following her passing from cancer in 1970, the Virginia Rice Williams Hall was named in her honor. In addition, family and friends established a scholarship that awards a female biochemistry major each year. This scholarship is yet another way Williams' legacy promotes women entering chemistry related fields.

Various memorabilia representing the legacy of Williams is now on display on the first floor of Williams Hall. The display case is sponsored by LSU’s Department of Chemistry and the Chlorine chapter of Iota Sigma Pi.

Sources:

Coolidge, T. (1968). Book and media review: Basic physical chemistry for the life sciences (Williams, Virginia R.; Williams, Hulen B.). J. Chem. Educ., 45, 7, A562. 

Find a Grave, Memorial page for Virginia Rice Williams, Memorial no. 8035177 (accessed July 1, 2020). Maintained by Charlotte Hubbard Rehpohl.

Laursen and Weston (2014). Trends in Ph.D. Productivity and Diversity in Top-50 U.S. Chemistry Departments: An Institutional Analysis.  J. Chem. Ed., 91, 1762. 

LSU Records, LSU Libraries Special Collections-Department of Chemistry, Hill Memorial Library.

Williams, Nancy A., ed. Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Woody, Cynthia (November 1967). “Virginia R. Williams Talks of Her Successful Career, Happy Marriage,” State-Times Advocate, Baton Rouge, LA. 

Acknowledgment:

Special thank you to Barry Cowan, Assistant Archivist, at the LSU Hill Memorial Library for locating archived materials during the COVID pandemic.