“You can’t be everything to everybody, but the fact that some women didn’t need us didn’t mean that there weren’t an awful lot more women who did.” – Pat Brown
During a stay in Chicago for a board of directors (bod) meeting about 15 years ago, I had the opportunity to meet one of the early leaders of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Patricia “Pat” Brown. It was an informal setting at the hotel in which we were staying, and I was in good company with several other bod members. I had no idea that I would cross paths with her again, however, one thing was certain about our chance meeting. I walked away thinking, “She’s the Real McCoy!”
This Her-Story post is another opportunity to share Pat’s bio and achievements of a very special woman, and more importantly, a pioneer and trail blazer for women in STEM. Although we share the same last name, we are not related. As I would discover, however, in preparing this post, we do share membership in GRITS – girls raised in the south!
Patricia L. Brown was born the youngest of four children, with a brother 14 years older than she and two sisters older than he. The place – Lafayette, LA. Given the large age differences between Pat and the older siblings, she acknowledges that she felt more like an only child in the family.
Her father, William Madison Brown, was what they called a stationary engineer. His area of expertise was diesel engines and he would often bring home pieces of the machinery to work on. He often enlisted support from his youngest in whatever he was doing. Labeling herself as a tomboy, she recalls that if her dad had anything that he needed to fix around the house, she was the chief gofer and meddlesome Mattie.
Her early education included attending several elementary schools in Lafayette, Abbeville, and Many in north Louisiana. As she explains, her father’s work assignments required him to move around quite a bit. Pat reminds us that when she started elementary school, Louisiana didn’t have a K-12 program that is characteristic of most public schools today. Due to a foot injury, she began school at age four (4), and graduated from high school in Many at age 15.
When asked if any of her teachers encouraged her to pursue a college degree? or to consider majoring in science or engineering?, Pat responds “Well, not particularly. I was always a good student, and some of the teachers I liked more than others, but nothing particular. None of them had any idea of encouraging me to be an engineer, and things like that. I was the one who decided I was going to be an engineer.” This is very characteristic of the Pat Brown that I met back in Chicago and know today.
Undergraduate and Graduate Education
Following high school graduation, Pat matriculated to Southwestern Louisiana Institute (SLI) to pursue her undergraduate degree. While she always liked chemistry, she thought, “Well, I really would rather do something more than just chemistry, so I decided I was going to take chemical engineering. I didn’t really do any research, I just decided.”
Once she got to college, she took a vocational guidance test, first for women, and then for men. After reviewing her results for the men’s test, the university staff also decided that she should be an engineer.
So here she is, all of 15, and entering college along with participants in the V-12 Navy College Training Program. This was an accelerated program, designed to produce Navy officers, therefore she was able to complete her degree in three years. She was not the only female in the engineering program, however, she was the only female engineer to graduate that year from SLI, and the first female chemical engineering graduate.
Discussion of her undergraduate education would be incomplete without noting that the new graduate was only 18 years old when she completed the program. Pat says, “I knew that was a little young, so I went on to graduate school. And I got a scholarship to the University of Texas.”
While the costs of college may have been cheaper back then, labor and salaries were also a lot lower. Pat’s father died during her second year of undergrad, and she needed financial assistance and scholarships to finish her engineering degree. She estimates that she earned 80% of her college expenses working in the registrar’s office and she also taught chemistry laboratory the last year of her baccalaureate degree program.
As fate, karma, or divine intervention would have it, she received a scholarship to the University of Texas, and her initial thoughts were to pursue a master of science in chemical engineering. However, after enrolling for grad school, the chemical engineering professors didn’t have one single project that she was the least bit interested in researching. Therefore, she decided to major in organic chemistry and instead, pursue a minor in chemical engineering.
As a teaching fellow, Pat taught organic chemistry laboratory for home economics students. “That was an interesting experience,” she says. I’m now wondering if her time spent with students helped to improve her cooking skills? Her response, “I never learned to cook and I never wanted to!”
At the ripe age of 22, Pat earned her master of science in organic chemistry. She was also about the same age as her home economic students. I’m wondering if she was a young 22 or a mature 22 at the time? She says in retrospect, “I like to think I was a mature 22; a young 22 is probably more like it.”
Armed with her graduate degree and ready to launch her professional career, she found it difficult to land a job in industry. It was 1947 and most firms weren’t hiring very many engineers. As an interesting twist, she received a job offer from Smith College in Northampton, MA to teach chemistry.
Initially, she turned the offer down because the salary was too low. Smith countered with a new offer that included $300 a month and a position as a faculty resident for one of the women’s dormitories. This meant that her room and board would be paid for. “All I had to do was sleep in the room at night, as the adult on the premises,” she says. “Sweet deal ”, I said. As a reminder, the adult on the premises was about the same age as the undergraduate residents.
It would take Pat three years before she could get the equivalent of her salary at Smith. Remember, she was getting $300 a month as a stipend, and she didn’t have to pay for room and board. According to Pat, “I had a two-room apartment with maid service and private bath. And I mean, they came in and made my bed in the morning, did my laundry and provided meals, and I was paid 300 bucks. So it took a long time before I could get something that was comparable to that.” Personally, this sounds like a nice gig that would take some doing for me to leave.
Her new position after Smith College was as a leather chemist in Peabody, MA. It was here that she met Isabelle French, a member of SWE and a future president of the organization. Pat was living at the Friendly Women’s House, sponsored by the Lydia Pinkham Foundation. Isabelle and some of the residents convinced her to go hiking with them in the White Mountains. After reaching the top of the mountain, Isabelle pulled out a SWE membership application and told Pat to fill it out. This happened in 1950, the same year that SWE was formed. Being captive on top of the mountain, Pat completed the application and joined SWE.
Next, on her list of professional positions, was that of chemist and research associate at Albany Medical College. Her plan at the time was to continue looking for a position in industry. Her paths crossed with Ethyl Corporation at an American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting. As an aside, Pat has been a member of ACS longer than SWE. She is an emeritus member of this technical organization.
Pat joined Ethyl Corporation in Detroit as a technical information resources specialist. She kindly refers to this assignment as her first real job, i.e. her first position in industry. Shortly after beginning her work assignment at Ethyl, she met Ann Lawrence. Ann was interested in forming a SWE section.
At Ethyl, she worked on the development of an information system for fuel and lubricant additives. Ethyl’s patent for tetraethyl lead was about to expire, and it was scrambling to find its next big money maker that would be as lucrative as this product had been. While the company’s luck with finding a product replacement fell flat, during this same period they set up a very elaborate information storage and retrieval system for data analysis that could be defined as novel for its time. They were using the Remington Rand system that the plant in Baton Rouge used for their financial records and other important documents, which used round-holed punch cards. They were like the old IBM cards, but they had round holes. The entire information system was set up on these cards.
She had always been interested in research and patent work and credits her time as an undergrad at SLI working with a very progressive librarian. She had one of the better courses in how to use libraries. Then when I got into graduate school, one of the professors in chemical engineering was very adamant about report writing and the use of the libraries for research in your field before you started doing anything in the lab. So I had a good foundation in technical information activities walking into the position at Ethyl.
Pat’s name is included as a charter member of the SWE Detroit Section which held its first meeting on June 30, 1952. One fond memory of her first few years in Detroit was attending the Western Centennial of Engineering Meeting in Chicago with some of the SWE members from the Detroit Section. In 1955, Pat moved on to Westinghouse in Pittsburg after spending four years at Ethyl.
At Westinghouse, Pat was a staff engineer and a technical writer for the Bettis Atomic Power Division. She was able to use her information systems and report writing knowledge that she developed at Ethyl in this new assignment. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh’s climate did not agree with her and she lasted about a year before moving on. During that time in Pittsburgh, she was able to assist the local SWE section by volunteering to fill their vacant chairman’s (now president) position.
Job hunting once again, she discovered that Texas Instruments (TI) was building its semiconductor facility in Dallas, and they wanted to set up a library. “It looked like a good opportunity for me, and it ended up being a very, very good one,” she says. She joined TI in 1957 as an information services supervisor.
At TI the library was part of Pat’s operation. “And it was a big library,” she recalls. The TI assignment had a big staff – about 20 employees including a couple of professional librarians and support staff. “We did literature work for the engineers — mostly that and some report writing. It was a management function more than anything else with very little hands-on searching or anything like that.”
When Pat lived in Texas, there was no professional section. During this time she served on the executive committee and was a member-at-large (MAL). She credits the management at TI in supporting her and encouraging her to pursue positions at the national level in SWE.
The company paid her expenses to national meetings, and supported her with secretarial help. “I would not have been able to be president of SWE at the time because I simply couldn’t have afforded it,” she says. “You know, I was making a good salary, but it wasn’t the kind that you could command today.” Pat is the first Society president who was elected from the MAL organization.
From TI, she moved to Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, OH in 1957. “I was there in contract research in information storage and retrieval and the design of information systems. And we did that on a contract basis all over the country. A lot of my work was related to the military, though, and classified, for storage and retrieval systems.” She stayed with Battelle for about 10 years. Outside of her work, she found time to help charter the South Ohio SWE section.
She moved on to Baxter Laboratories in Chicago. There she managed their entire library operation which included sites in a number of facilities in the Chicago area. She joined Baxter during the 1970s, remained with them for about 10 years, and enjoyed working for them. However, the 1980s brought on winds of change for many companies in the U.S. In explaining her exit from the company, Pat said: “When Baxter bought American Hospital, I was part of the middle management that got liberated. This was also about the time when job losses were occurring due to corporate mergers. We never had that sort of thing happen to anybody that I knew before. It was a very big blow.”
Her last professional assignment was with the Stepan Company. “Now that was the job where I really did hands-on with computer systems. I ended up being in charge of the computer network at the company, which was all IBM, PCs, Windows based, etc.” Back then, there weren’t very many companies that were doing that sort of thing. In addition to the above, Stepan’s had a separate computer system – the Star System – for information storage and retrieval. It allowed you to set up your own databases all throughout the company and link to that, and you could search from very sophisticated systems. “I ended up doing not only the software, but the hardware, and I had a ball,” she says with beams in her eyes.
In summing up a career that spanned almost four decades, here’s what she says: I got into information storage and retrieval when it was still on Route 66 – our version of the Information Super Highway back then. I got a vast amount of experience in the field, and would have wished to have had the computers that we have today when I was working in information technology. It wasn’t until my last job that I was really able to make use of computers and use them in the work that I was doing.
SWE: Her Presidency
Shared earlier, Pat’s involvement in SWE dates back to 1950, right after the Society was formed. Pat served two terms as SWE national president from1961 to 1963. She worked with many SWE founders to help advance the Society’s goals to encourage women engineers to succeed.
As Pat reminds us, the priorities during this period for SWE were, money, money, money, and membership. Without one it was very difficult to get the other. “I remember an endless round of speeches, speeches, and more speeches,” she says. “I hope I never have to beg for money again. But we had to spend our time keeping the infrastructure together and operational so that the Society didn’t fold. We were in dire straits and possibly not going to be able to continue the operation with all volunteer labor.
The growth of the society was something that I never really thought would get beyond a couple of thousand people, and that we would have to struggle very hard to do that. It has been particularly gratifying, for those of us who stayed around to see what actually happened…to see how much it has grown over the years, and how well accepted the group is in the engineering profession. A lot of the young people coming up now don’t realize how hard it was for us old-timers. They don’t know how well they have it. And for those who are aware of challenges that women professionals face then and now, they say, “Oh, that happened to you, too? There’s still a lot of discrimination, however, it’s nothing like it was in the early years.
On becoming a life member: Yeah, I’ve paid my dues. Well, that was a long time ago, however, that was also one of the best things that I ever did was taking out a life membership. Think how many years I would have been paying and paying and paying. Of course, I’ve been paying and paying and paying well before and since becoming a life member.
While she appreciates the growth in membership and the significant increase in attendees at annual conferences, she feels that SWE’s big event (annual conference) has also become more impersonal, although the technical program and presentations are a lot better. “That’s why I particularly like the Over-the-Hill Suite,” she says. It was started a good many years ago by Margaret Pritchard, Arminta Harness, and a few others. We had always rented a suite at the conference. And then those of us who were associated with the suite stocked it with booze, soft drinks and munchies. We had open house every evening.
Initially called the Convention Suite, the name turned into Over-the-Hill Suite in 1986. It was institutionalized as a part of SWE in 2002 when the conference committee decided to include it in the planning and program activities. It has a laid-back environment and room for conversation on just about any topic from how to launch your career, navigate choices for graduate schools, address work related issues, and just about anything else that may surface from good conversation and company.
The shared experiences and atmosphere of the Over-the-Hill-Suite was valued so much that a mini version of it was launched for Region B annual conferences beginning in 2004.
As SWE president, Pat considers her crowning achievement to be the development of our headquarters office in the United Engineering Center in New York City. However, she thinks one of the best things that SWE has done is the Petticoats and Slide Rules Exhibit.
In addition to SWE, Pat is affiliated with the American Chemical Society, and, before retirement, with the American Society for Information Science and the Society for Technical Communication.
Pat retired from the corporate world in 1992. In reflecting on her time in the work place, she says, “Although I often said when I was president that, you know, I’ve never really felt that I’ve had any discrimination against me because I was a woman engineer, I did have my share of challenges. According to Pat, “A lot of the troubles that I had in the work place were tied to my being a woman with a bad disposition. I brought a lot of it on myself. However, my experience tells me that smart aleck and know-it-all males are tolerated much more than females.” I am inclined to agree with her on that.
When Pat joined Baxter, she met another female engineer, Lois Bey, also a member of SWE although they had never met before. Lois was the first female chemical engineering graduate from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Pat and Lois worked together in information systems at Baxter and again later at Stepan. After Pat and Lois retired, they pooled their resources to purchase a home in Glen View, IL.
In 1999 they moved to Las Vegas, NV (Region B) for warmer weather. While both were avid needle workers, arthritis and eyesight made such pursuits difficult. Now they visit casinos – Lois for video poker and Pat for the slot machines. Neither activity is making them rich, but it gives them something to do.
Pat and Lois are considered pearls of knowledge and wisdom and are held in high esteem by Region B members who greatly value their hard work and efforts to lay the roadwork for women in STEM.
Interview With Patricia L. Brown, by Lauren Kata – Interviewer, for the Society of Women Engineers Oral History Project, April 16th, 2003, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Patricia Brown (engineer), Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patricia_Brown_(engineer) [last reviewed on 04.15.2016]
Pat Brown (retired engineer), various conversations via phone and email between Pat Brown and Vi Brown during March and April 2016.