The 20th century in the United States was marked by incredible progress in science, transforming a nation of farmers spending their lives working with their animals and the strength in their hands into a technological powerhouse where electricity, computers, instantaneous communications, and high-tech machinery are indispensable to every facet of life. These achievements were due to the work of men and women in numerous fields. It was also in the last century that women were able to make significant contributions to science in large numbers for the first time. One of those pioneers in scientific research and leadership was chemist Mary L. Good.
Her story began in Grapevine, then a tiny farming community just northeast of Fort Worth. She was born Mary Lowe in 1931, one of four children to a husband-and-wife team of educators. Since education was the family business, its importance was never lost on her as her parents encouraged her to study and eventually go to college. In 1942, at the age of 11, her father, John Lowe, accepted a job as a school principal in Kirby, a small community in Southeast Arkansas. After a few years, the family moved again to nearby Willisville. As a youngster, she actually et up her own photo development lab in her home, with no experience and no one to teach her.
“I’ve never been afraid to do new things,” she said in an interview.
After she graduated high school in Willisville, she enrolled at Arkansas State Teacher’s College in Conway (the modern University of Central Arkansas) with hopes of becoming a teacher like her parents. She soon discovered chemistry, a subject her poor, rural high school did not have the resources to offer, and quickly changed her major. She graduated with a degree in chemistry at the age of 19 in 1950. She then enrolled in graduate school at the University of Arkansas where she married fellow graduate student and lab partner Billy Good in 1952. She earned a masters degree in 1953. At the time, she began researching the use of radioactive iodine in the use of treating thyroid conditions.
While completing her doctorate at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, she accepted a position as a chemistry professor and director of the radiochemistry lab, working with radioactive substances, at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She received her doctorate in 1955. In 1958, she and her husband were both offered positions as chemistry professors at LSU-New Orleans. She published dozens of academic articles and became a respected authority on spectroscopy, the study of chemicals, their composition, and their interactions by analyzing their light patterns.
In 1972, Good became the first woman appointed to the respected American Chemical Society. The university honored her by naming her the Boyd Professor of Chemistry in 1974, the highest honor the university had to offer and the first woman to receive the honor.
She steadily gained attention outside the university. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter named her as the first woman to head the National Science Foundation. In 1981, she accepted a position as vice-president of technology at Signal Research Center where she and her team researched the potential consumer applications of the newly emerging Global Positioning System. By 1987, her fellow chemists named her president of the American Chemical Society. And in 1991, she was named to the presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology by President George H. W. Bush.
With yet another change in administration, she was still in high demand. President Bill Clinton named Good as Undersecretary of Commerce for Technology in 1993. While in the Clinton administration, she encouraged more cooperation between colleges, business, and government for pursuing new technology. She was also part of the initiative encouraging the development of hybrid fuel technology for automobiles to reduce reliance on oil.
At the age of 66 in 1997, she returned to Arkansas and accepted a new position as a chemistry professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She was soon named Founding Dean of the UALR College of Engineering and Information Technology, helping to oversee construction of a new $35 million research and classroom building.
Good received the Priestley Medal in 1997 from the American Chemical Society, the first woman so honored. She also received the Vannevar Bush Award from the National Science Foundation in 2004 in recognition of her work and leadership. Good retired in 2011. She continued to receive many honors in her retirement as well. She continues to stay active and advises, “Do the best you can with what’s available… be willing to take a chance.”
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@ gmail.com