Engineer of the Week No. 115: Isabel Hodgson Hadfield, MSc, DiplEd., MSPA (29th January 1893- 6th February 1965)
Chemical engineer Isabel Hadfield spent most of her career in research at the NPL. We do not generally think of fabrics as engineering materials these days but in the early days of aviation, cotton and linen were the usual coverings for aeroplanes’ wood-framed structures. Her research, initially for this purpose but later for more general industrial needs, looked at the effects of the mild acids used to process cloth and of sunshine on cotton fabrics. Her approach was entirely that of the engineer: the physical and chemical structures and properties of the material under consideration in respect to the stresses and strains which would be required of it.
Born in Hampshire, where her father was a schoolmaster, she was mainly raised in north east London. She graduated from East London College (now Queen Mary College) with a BSc in chemistry in 1914, then took a Diploma of Education and became a chemistry mistress for the Birmingham Education Council. In 1917 the demands of the war effort led her to join the National Physical Laboratory, where she would remain for a full career as a researcher. Her war work was, as discussed already, on the deterioration properties of cotton and linen in aeronautical use, on which she co-authored her first paper in 1918. In 1923 she gained an MSc in chemistry from East London Technical College, with her dissertation being on ‘doped’ fabrics. Her work on cotton, now for industrial purposes, continued through the 1920s, including the publication of 4 more papers, one of which she gave at the at Conference for Women in Science and industry, at the Empire Exhibition, Wembley,16th July 1925, later published in The Woman Engineer. In 1927 she was part of the NPL total solar eclipse expedition, for which she was to have provided the colour and photometric photographs, except that the entire proceedings descended to “a solemn farce” due to the total cloud cover for most that day! Her later career took her into metallurgy and research methods and by 1947 she was the most senior woman at NPL: a PSO in the Metallurgyy section, and was publishing on a range of related topics.
In 1933 she was one of the founder members of the Micro-chemical Group within the Chemistry Society (now RCS) and in 1944 was admitted as member to Society of Public Analysts. In 1948 she was the only woman on the committee developing BS1428 on microchemical analysis standards. She had a full career at the NPL, retiring at the usual age for women in 1953, with the rank of Principal Scientific Officer. She never married and died in Winchester in 1965.