I never went to college. I wasn’t allowed to, even when the universities began accepting women. My job was to take care of the house and my parents, who were both suffering from Malaria. In the late 19th Century, there was so much housework to do.
Among my daily chores, I spent hours washing dishes. I noticed the sheen on the dirty water and how it shifted, depending on how oily it was. What was it that made it do that?
My brother went to Göttingen University to study physics. I read his textbooks when he came home. I had a passionate interest in natural science, especially physics. I didn’t have any real science classes at my Girls’ High School, but I was very curious about the nature of things. I poured over the experiments and theories and when he left to go back to school, he left me his books to study.
I worked on experiments after I had finished my household duties. I was most interested in Fluid Dynamics, which used the surface tension of water to measure molecules. This was before x-ray crystallography had been invented. For over ten years, I experimented and collected data. Then I wrote to Lord Rayleigh (Nobel-prize winning scientist who discovered Argon).
Rayleigh immediately grasped the importance of my research and submitted it to the publication Nature. Years later, my original idea for the trough used to study films on water is still used today.
I published 16 articles on my work which dealt with the tin water trough, horizontal balance, surface tension, contact angles, effect of contamination on the water surface, thickness of monolayers on water, properties of surfactants and surface tension of liquid solutions, which formed the foundation of a new scientific field of surface science.
I often wished I had a formal education after I was 15 years old, but it was not to be. Instead, I pursued my studies entirely alone. The fact that the science community accepted my work makes all the hours of lonely work a true triumph.