Patsy O’Connell Sherman
Knowing she wanted to attend college, Patsy Sherman was dismayed when her high school aptitude test results said she was best suited to be a housewife. Refusing to accept this future path, Sherman demanded to take the test given to male students-this time her results were much different–this test recommended becoming a dentist or scientist.
She graduated in 1952 from Gustavus Adolphus College as the first female to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and mathematics. She was hired by the chemical company 3M but only on a temporary basis, as it was assumed all women working in laborites would get married and leave to raise families so they were always considered temporary workers.
Sherman was first assigned to work with flurochemicals, and along with a colleague, Sam Smith, she was charged with developing a new kind of rubber for jet aircraft fuel lines. It was by chance that in 1953 a lab assistant spilled some of the chemicals Sherman was working with on her canvas tennis shoes. Exhaustive efforts were employed to remove the chemical from the shoes until it became apparent that it was impossible.
Inspired by the inability to remove the spill Sherman decided to determine if the chemical could instead repel other materials. Sherman and Smith would be granted their first joint patent in 1971 for the invention of block and graft copolymers containing water-solvatable polar groups and fluoroaliphatic groups. This polymer would be further developed and marketed by 3M under the trademark name of Scotchgard. The two would continue working together creating stain repellants for everything from cotton to upholstery fabric and would be granted 12 more patents.
While at 3M, Sherman did marry and have children but remained an inventor and scientist until her retirement in 1992, at which time she was manager of technical development for the company. Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2001 she was honored again the next year by being asked to speak at the 200th anniversary celebration of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Offices.
Written by Angela Goad