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No Purple Fingers: Beutler Practices Physics in a Man's World

By Alex B. Ginsberg, Crimson Staff Writer

According to tradition, the Radcliffe china is awarded to the first woman in her class to marry after graduation.

In 1950, that woman was Abigail C. Beutler who married soon after receiving her degree.

Beutler, however, turned out to be anything but a traditional woman of her era.

Though discouraged by professors who thought women had no business in the sciences, she concentrated in physics, went on to receive three masters degrees and conducted innovative research in her field.

And over the course of her career, she worked for the military, studied space physics and even worked as an automobile engineer--serving as a pioneer for women in science and the professional world.

'We Don't Want Girls'

Originally from the Boston area, Beutler was 16 when she enrolled at Radcliffe in 1946.

She says she remembers commuting to school and hanging out at Agassiz House in Radcliffe Yard, drinking tea, playing bridge and "sometimes doing homework."

But nothing could match the idea of stereotypical women's roles better than the reason Beutler's family sent her to Radcliffe.

"My mother told me to go to Radcliffe so I could marry a Harvard guy," she says.

And men, Beutler found, were in high supply.

"There were young men and not-so-young men," she says, referring to the large number of World War II veterans with whom she became acquainted.

"I think the ratio of Harvard guys to Radcliffe girls was about 17 to 1," Beutler says. "I certainly got my quota."

Although "the idea of going to college to have a career was secondary," Beutler says she came to Radcliffe sure of her interest in science.

"I was going to do physics or chemistry, but it was no fun going to parties with purple fingers," Beutler says. "So I did physics."

But there was no traveled path Beutler found before her.

As Radcliffe was not equipped with science facilities, she spent most of her time over the next four years taking classes in Harvard Yard.

She was one of, if not the only woman in many of these classes, and it was apparent Harvard was not ready to accept her among its men.

"The dean of freshmen [Mildred Sherman] told me to be a Latin major," Beutler says.

And resistance to her decision to study physics was even worse from the department itself.

"When I met with my advisor, Wendell Hinkle Furry, he said 'We don't want girls in the physics department,'" Beutler remembers. But she refused to be deterred.

"I'm a stubborn person. I wanted to do it, so I did," she says.

Beutler chuckles as she says that, years later, she presented a collection of her research before an audience at a science conference.

"At the break, I saw Furry was there," she says. "I went up to him and

said, 'Professor Furry, as you see, I'm still in physics.'"

Marriage and Triple Masters

But Beutler didn't rail against all the expectations society set for her. She became engaged to be married at the end of her junior year and tied the knot after graduation the following year.

"He was an MIT man, but my mother was still happy because I was getting married," she says.

But, husband in hand, Beutler decided it was time to embark on a career.

In 1951, she obtained a masters degree in education from Boston University and had expected to go into teaching, but instead accepted a job offer from North American Aviation.

"I worked as an engineer designing guided missile systems," Beutler says. "But I was paid only half of what my male colleagues were."

It was gender-based inequality that motivated Beutler and some of her peers to found the Society of Women Engineers in 1952.

"We thought that, by pooling our resources, we'd have more power," she says. "But by the time it got organized, I was out having children."

In 1953, when she was pregnant with her first son, Beutler was "invited to leave" her job.

He was born in 1954 and soon followed by a sister the next year.

"Initially, I just had kids," Beutler says. "But then my husband got an appointment at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor."

The family moved there not long after her daughter's birth. At this point, she had begun to lean toward accepting life as a traditional wife and mother.

"But then I started getting stuff from Radcliffe in the mail that encouraged women to work," Beutler says. "So when the kids were in nursery school, I went to the University of Michigan and took classes."

She received a masters degree in physics in 1960, in the same year her second son was born.

Soon after, she accepted a job at the university's radio-astronomy observatory.

She stayed there until 1964 and made a number of key discoveries relating to space physics.

She then went to Stanford University from 1964 to 1965 to secure her third masters degree--this time in electrical engineering.

She came back to Michigan after that to complete some of her previous work.

"We made the first measurements at the topside of the ionosphere using rockets," Beutler says.

She called it her most exciting moment in physics when her results were subsequently confirmed by Canadian scientists.

Missiles to Turbo Trans-Ams

Both her personal and professional lives underwent significant changes in 1967 upon her divorce from her husband.

She no longer had enough income to support her family and moved back to the Boston area, accepting a job studying the re-entry physics of missiles at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory.

"I did a lot of classified work and had a high reputation with the Air Force," Beutler says.

She spent nine years at Lincoln Lab, and remarried during this span.

"Then I was offered a position with General Motors as an experimental engineer," she says. "I led 150 people in the testing of current and next year's model cars."

In her five years there, Beutler says her "crowning glory" was her work with the "Turbo Trans-Am."

Her superiors had given her two months to figure out how to prevent the car from overheating. She solved the problem in half that time.

"But it was also my downfall because GM didn't want that kind of contribution from women," Beutler says. "I had disproved the theory that, unless you're born with gasoline in your veins, you can't be an automotive engineer."

In 1983, she went to work for General Electric as a program manager.

"By then, I had learned how to select a boss," Beutler says. "A guy who has a wife who's a professional and/or a daughter who is."

She was eventually transferred to New Hampshire where she has remained ever since.

Flying Into Retirement

Beutler no longer tries to balance motherhood and missile systems, but her life has hardly slowed down in the last few years.

"Never retire," she advises. "You'll be busier than when you were working."

She remains quite active, ice skating with a synchronized skating team, playing viola in an orchestra, teaching piano lessons and even piloting airplanes.

Beutler is a certified flight instructor and owns a single-engine plane that she flies regularly. She started flying in 1980.

"My husband got into it first [in 1969], and I got tired of being left alone on Saturdays," she says.

Beutler also tutors high school students in mathematics and physics.

"My objective in life is to pass as much information along to others as possible," she says.

Better Times Ahead?

While Beutler and other women scientists from her generation have helped establish a place for women in scientific fields, Beutler says there is still unequal opportunity between the sexes.

"There is still a glass ceiling," she says. "Just a few stories higher."

And although Harvard women interested in science do not face the same level of discrimination the Radcliffe women did in Beutler's day, she says she feels discrimination is still an issue.

"I feel very strongly that Harvard is still a boy's college," she says. "The low number of tenured women shows that."

She added that she has spoken with several undergraduate women who say that "there aren't enough women faculty to talk to" and to serve as role models.

She says her disaffection from Harvard based on its treatment of women in the sciences has led her to donate money only to organizations that specifically target increasing the number of tenured women at Harvard, as opposed to contributing just to Harvard, or the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study.

China Myths and More

Strangely, and perhaps symbolically, Beutler never received the coveted china set despite holding rightful claim to it based on her wedding date.

"I thought it was a myth," she says.

And the men who told her that she would never be a physicist could be considered myths as well, according to Beutler.

For her career in the sciences was pursued against the grain of a male, and sometimes unfriendly, academic community. And while she struggled to balance her academic passions with the burdening task of raising a family, she says her story should give hope to students with similar scientific ambitions.

"I do not necessarily see myself as a role model, but I do encourage women in the sciences to pursue their academic interests," she concludes.

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