Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Iulia Lermontova

Burning desire for black gold

Name: Iulia Lermontova
Nationality: Russian
Lived: 1847-1919
Fields: Chemistry
Claim to fame: First to prove the superiority of oil over coal for industry; first woman to receive doctorate in chemistry

Iulia Lermontova (1847-1919) was one of the foremost chemists of her day. Raised in an enlightened family who encouraged her early interest in chemistry, and buttressed by her friendship with fellow scientist Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891), she became a leading organic chemist and the first woman to focus on the emerging area of petroleum research.

Devouring the family library

Iulia’s father was a general and head of the Moscow Cadet Corps, and her family had an extensive library. Educated at home, she read everything on hand and learned several European languages at a very early age. But what really caught her attention were the chemistry texts. Her family did not understand her intense interest but they supported her by hiring private tutors.
When she was 22, Iulia applied for the Petrovskaya Agricultural Academy, which had a strong chemistry programme. Despite having the support of several of the academy’s professors, Iulia’s application, like those of all female applicants, was turned down.

The beginning of a lifelong friendship

Following this disappointment, her cousin introduced her to Sofia Kovalevskaya, a mathematician and feminist who was making plans to leave Russia and continue her studies in Germany. This friendship was pivotal to Iulia’s career.
Kovalevskaya helped to persuade Iulia’s reluctant parents to allow her to leave Russia for Heidelberg, where the two would have a chance to continue their studies. Once there, in 1869, Sofia managed to convince the university authorities to allow both of them to attend lectures. She also managed to persuade the notorious misogynist Robert Bunsen (of Bunsen burner fame) to let Iulia work in his lab.
Iulia’s work in Heidelberg focused on the separation of platinum metals, although when she moved to Berlin in 1871 her interests shifted to organic chemistry. In Berlin, she was not formally allowed to attend lectures or work in the labs. Nevertheless, she took private lessons, worked in the laboratory of the chemist A.W. Hofmann and published her first scientific paper in 1872. Two years later, she went to Göttingen and successfully completed and defended her dissertation, receiving highest honours.

The triumphal return

That same year, aged 28, she moved back to Russia and was welcomed by some of that country’s foremost chemists, including Dmitri Mendelehyev who established the periodic table of the elements. In Moscow, she worked with Vladimir Markovnikov, and when she moved to St Petersburg, she worked in the laboratory of Alexander Butlerov. In 1875, she became a member of the Russian Chemistry Society. During this period, Iulia made several important discoveries that established her as a leader in organic chemistry.

Oil rush

When Iulia contracted typhus in 1877, Sophia visited and nursed her back to health. That same year, Iulia’s father died, so she returned to Moscow and stayed. She had decided to stay near Sophia, who was now like family to her, and – much to the disappointment of her colleagues – turned down an opportunity to teach at the new ‘Higher Women’s Courses’, the first Russian institution for women’s higher education.
In 1880, Iulia began studying petroleum and focused on separating out the different components of crude oil. Her experiments were the first to prove that oil produces lighting gas of higher quality than coal, making it better for use in industry. She also invented an original device for the continuous distillation of petroleum, which was widely praised.Congress in Brussels in 1897.

Making cheese and raising Fufa

Iulia’s petroleum research brought her much acclaim, but in 1886 she walked away from her successful career in chemistry to live a quieter life in the countryside. She had never held an official post. At the age of 39 she moved to the family estate in the Pskov province and turned her attention to scientific agriculture: improving the soil, breeding fish and cattle, and making cheeses that were successful in Russia and the Ukraine.
When Sofia Kovalevskaya died in 1891, Iulia took in and raised her daughter Fufa, who had spent her summers with Iulia. The two lived peacefully on the estate until 1917, when the local authorities tried to dispossess her of her land following the Bolshevik revolution. Iulia managed to keep her property thanks to the intervention of the commissioner of education. She died of a brain haemorrhage in 1919.

Scientific achievements

Iulia Lermontova was the first woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry at Göttingen. She was the first scientist to study the alkylation of olefi ns by hydrogen derivatives, the first to demonstrate the structure of 4,4-diaminohydrazobenzene, and the first to obtain 1,3-dibromobutane and dimethylacetate. Her work for the petroleum industry led to the development of better refi ning techniques and contributed significantly to enabling the building of oil and gas plants in Russia.