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Dr. Mary Engle Pennington.

Ag InnovatHER’s Lasting Impact on Food Science & Safety

Next time you stroll through the refrigerated aisles of your local supermarket, take a moment and look around. Behind the convenience of modern refrigeration lies the pioneering work of Dr. Mary Engle Pennington, a.k.a. “The Ice Woman,” who brought those foods to your fingertips.

Despite facing barriers due to her gender, Dr. Pennington’s passion for science propelled her forward. That’s why FarmHER is one of many platforms to highlight Pennington’s illustrious life for Women’s History Month. Her work developing “safe and sanitary methods for processing, storing, and shipping milk, poultry, eggs, and fish” shaped the agriculture industry as we know it today.

In our new blog series, “Ag InnovatHERs: Breaking the Grass Ceiling,” created in partnership with Nationwide, FarmHER is highlighting female Ag InnovatHERs like Dr. Mary Engle Pennington in tech, agribusiness, and other fields. Women who support producers and propel the agriculture industry forward.

From Rejection to Recognition in Chemistry

Even as a young girl growing up in Nashville, Tenn., Mary Engle Pennington showed a deep interest in chemistry. At 12, her obsession with a book on medical chemistry first led her to the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). There, she met with a professor to discuss its contents. As the anecdote is told, she was turned away and told to master spelling before tackling elevated concepts.

Denied a bachelor’s degree, she received a “certificate of proficiency” in chemistry from UPenn’s Towne Scientific School in 1892. She refused to be deterred, going on to a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1895. Again restricted from jobs in her field, she founded the Philadelphia Clinical Laboratory.

Hands holding ice cream in waffle cones.
Photo by Olga Zarytska via Adobe Stock.

Pioneering in Perishable Foods

Dr. Pennington’s impact extended far beyond the laboratory. One such project, according to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), was, “working to clean up the ice cream supply peddled to school children by educating farmers in the handling of raw milk.” She soon started working with Harvey Wiley, considered the “Father of the FDA,” on cold storage problems in 1905.

As America’s population shifted towards urban centers in the 20th century, our reliance on distant food sources grew. At the same time, concerns around food safety became paramount. In response, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act was passed to safeguard the nation’s food supply. Dr. Pennington was at the forefront of this pivotal legislation, revolutionizing the handling, transportation, and storage of perishable goods.

Wiley wanted to hire Pennington to head the Bureau of Chemistry’s Food Research Lab and help implement the 1906 ruling. He even used the pseudonym “M.E. Pennington” in his hiring request to disguise that she was a woman. The ruse was discovered, eventually. However, she was able to keep her position with the Lab under Wiley’s defense. Despite her expertise, he argued, she would’ve been barred from the position due to her sex.

Dr. Pennington’s research pioneered what would become one of the main tenets of food science and safety. Their discoveries were two-fold. Finding that fresh foods held at a constant, low temperature extended the time the food could be kept without spoiling. Likewise, eliminating temperature fluctuations kept bacterial counts low and kept consumers from getting sick. She went on to determine safe storage temperatures for a range of perishable food products like milk, eggs, and cheese. Not to mention, safer practices for handling raw poultry.

Urban delivery refrigerator box truck with red cabin driving on a twisty road with beautiful view and nature in early autumn.
Photo By Anton Zabielskyi via Adobe Stock

Becoming the “Ice Woman”

Her work laid the foundation for modern refrigeration practices, ensuring the safe transport and storage of essential goods. She went on to conduct extensive studies on the effects of refrigeration on food products. She traveled the nation to improve refrigerator box car efficiency in transporting perishable foods and set standards for their construction.

Dr. Pennington is now considered one of the foremost American authorities on home refrigeration. After decades with the USDA, she went on to work for American Balsa. There, she helped develop groundbreaking insulation techniques used to develop and popularize domestic refrigeration. As her work proliferated, so did her recognition in the public consciousness. In 1941, she became the subject of a New Yorker profile titled, “Ice Woman.” She went on to work as a consultant and contributed to several scientific publications. Pennington was vice president of the American Institute of Refrigeration when she died in 1952 at age 80.

Pennington is a member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Hall of Fame, the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the first woman elected to the Poultry Historical Society of Fame. In 1940, she received the Garvan-Olin Medal, the highest award given to women in the American Chemical Society.

Dr. Mary Engle Pennington
Dr. Mary Engle Pennington, Courtesy of the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

As women in agriculture, we owe a debt of gratitude to pioneers like Dr. Mary Engle Pennington. Her tenacity and brilliance paved the way for future generations in so many ways. Her legacy also serves as a reminder of the invaluable contributions women make to the agricultural industry every day with or without recognition. So the next time you enjoy a glass of milk or shuck open an oyster miles away from the sea, thank Dr. Pennington for making that possible!

Ag InnovatHERs: Breaking the “Grass” Ceiling

In our new blog series, “Ag InnovatHERs: Breaking the Grass Ceiling” in Partnership with Nationwide, we are highlighting female Ag InnovatHERs in tech, agribusiness, and other fields like Dr. Mary Engle Pennington who are helping support producers and propel the agriculture industry forward.

As the #1 farm insurer in the U.S., Nationwide has the innovations and expertise to help you grow and protect your business success. And because their roots are in agriculture, we care about your neighbors, too. You’ll see it in the programs and services they provide and the support that keeps your farm community thriving. To access informative agribusiness resources designed just for FarmHERs, visit Nationwide’s Ag Insight Center.

Do you know an Ag InnovatHER who should be featured? Suggest one today!

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