Why wasn’t Yvonne Brill more famous? Why wasn’t she held up as a role model for girls across America? Why didn’t most of us know of her accomplished career?
I hadn’t heard of her until coming across her obituary in the NY Times this weekend. It said Brill (who died last week at age 88), was:
A brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits…. It is still being used by satellites that handled worldwide phone service, long-range television broadcasts, and other tasks.
At the time, it wasn’t easy for women to break into that field:
[Brill] is believed to have been the only woman in the United States who was actually doing rocket science in the mid-1940s, when she worked on the first designs for an American satellite.
It was a distinction she earned in the face of obstacles, beginning when the University of Manitoba in Canada refused to let her major in engineering because there were no accommodations for women at an outdoor engineering camp, which students were required to attend. [So] she studied mathematics and chemistry instead and graduated at the top of her class.
This story from the obit, from her pre-rocket-science days as a saleswoman for a chemical company, put a smile on my face:
While still peddling chemicals, she met William Franklin Brill, a research chemist, at a talk by Linus Pauling, who would win one of his Nobel Prizes in chemistry. At one point Mr. Brill told her about his problems making a particular chemical in his lab. She replied that she could sell it to him by the pound at a very low price. Soon, the couple went square-dancing, only to discover that they both hated it. They found other interests, and married in 1951.
Brill was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Obama in 2011, but those ceremonies don’t get nearly as much attention as when the team that wins March Madness visits the White House — but her story should be shared with girls (and boys) in school as encouragement to stick with math and science and someday do great work like Yvonne Brill.