Engineer of the Week No. 11. This week we wish one of the USA’s first female engineers, Lou Alta Melton, a happy 124th birthday
Lou Alta Merrill (nee Melton) BSc CivEng(February 1895 - July1974)
Daughter of Sherd Melton and Hesta Long, she was born in Texas but raised in Bayfield, Wisconsin and when in 9th grade at school she was reported in the local paper as having perfect attendance. She was an enthusiastic basketball player in high school and taught in a Colorado primary (grade) school before going to study for a civil engineering degree at the University of Colorado, from which she graduated in 1920. She then accepted a position with the United States Bureau of Public Roads and, after serving in the drafting department, was promoted to Junior Bridge Engineer.
The only woman to design or build bridges in the country, she was employed in the San Francisco district office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Public Roads, and then as assistant bridge engineer in the Missoula office.She was a member of the American Association of Engineers and was the firstwoman member of the Colorado Society of Engineers.In 1921 she gave a talk at the Missoulabranch of the AAE. In 1922, The Woman Engineer reprinted a piece from the Shanghai Times which hailed her as "Woman Bridge Builder, in spite of her youth, is as good a civil engineer as any man in the United States".
With Hilda Counts, her classmate at Colorado, LouAlta decided to try to form an American Society of Women Engineers and Architectswith themselves as vice president and president respectively.They wrote to all the US universities which had engineering departments to find out how many female students they had. Famously, they got a lot of rejection letters back, along the lines of ‘this university does not have and never expects to have any women engineering students’. Having established that the US universities probably had about 200 female engineering students or alumnae, an announcement was put in the engineering press and small numbers started to join in 1919-20. Although they were the first to realise the benefits of networks for women in engineering, ASWEA was not nationally successful but was the forerunner of the US Society of Women Engineers.
She married Archibald ShepardMerrill (Dr and eventually Professor of Mathematics) and they lived in Missoula, Montana, and had a daughter Janet. She was active in the university Mathematics Society and taught mathematics atMontana State University. In 1953 she was on the Montana State Board of Examiners, but it seems she never practiced as an engineer after moving to Montana.