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“…In Preference to a Better Qualified Woman”: Remembering Nellie Wakeman

Updated: Aug 13

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of Points posts during March in honor of Women’s History Month. Today’s article comes from Managing Editor Greg Bond, Assistant Director of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy and the Senior Editor of History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals.

“Whenever a woman comes into competition with a man she must not only be as good but considerably better than the man who wants the same job,” explained Nellie Wakeman in a 1937 article about “Women in Pharmacy” for the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. Wakeman, who in 1913 had become the first (known) woman in the United States to receive a PhD in pharmacy, lamented that “even then the chances are about ten to one that it will be given to the man.”

Wakeman was the first—and at that time still the only—woman on the pharmacy faculty at the University of Wisconsin, and she described the employment situation in terms that may still be all too familiar for many women in the workplace today:

“And if the woman does get it, her salary will probably be less than that paid to men for the same work; moreover, arrangements are sometimes made that whatever of honor or credit accrues to the position will be directed to some male superior or colleague.” [1]

Throughout her long teaching career at the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy from 1913 through 1946, Wakeman battled discrimination but was both a role model and a fierce advocate for women in pharmacy. In the male-dominated professions of pharmacy and academia, she routinely earned praise for her research, writing, and teaching, and she created a lasting legacy by encouraging her female students to pursue pharmaceutical and graduate education despite the prejudices of the era.

Nellie Wakeman Through the Years

Nellie Wakeman through the years: in 1903, 1908, and 1939. Image courtesy of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy.

Early Life

Nellie Antoinette Wakeman was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, on February 20, 1883, to farmers John and Martha (Hatch) Wakeman. She was the second youngest of the couple’s four daughters. She attended nearby Whitewater State Normal School where she participated in debate and graduated in 1904.

After briefly teaching high school, she enrolled in the University of Wisconsin Department of Pharmacy (as it was then known), where she earned her BS (1908) and MS (1910) degrees in pharmacy. Only a handful of women had preceded her in the pharmacy course at UW, and she was just the third woman to earn a pharmacy master’s degree from the Department.

Nellie Wakeman 1909 Badger

Nellie Wakeman in the 1909 University of Wisconsin Badger yearbook as a senior working on her BS degree in pharmacy. Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

While pursuing her PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry, she was hired by Mills College, in Oakland, California, as a Chemistry instructor. She taught at Mills for two years while writing her dissertation about “Pigments of Flowering Plants.” She completed her doctoral degree at the University of Wisconsin in 1913, becoming, reportedly, the first woman in the country to earn a PhD in a pharmaceutical discipline.

University of Wisconsin

UW promptly hired Wakeman as an instructor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Pharmacy. Over the years, she published numerous articles and pamphlets and became a recognized expert in plant pigments and plant chemistry.

Despite her academic credentials, her publications, and her well-regarded teaching record, however, she faced difficulties advancing in her career at the University of Wisconsin. Even though she held a PhD, she remained an “Instructor” from 1913 until 1927 when the University belatedly advanced her to Assistant Professor of Pharmacy.

She eventually received tenure as an Assistant Professor, but, despite support from the Pharmacy faculty, the University denied her further promotion. As historian Patricia Spain Ward explained in 1988: “She was a superb teacher, devoted to her work… [and] the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy repeatedly requested her promotion, but, each time, higher administration refused to promote her.”

Disregarding these professional setbacks, Wakeman was a dedicated teacher who particularly encouraged women’s education. In 1921, she was one of 22 founding members of the University of Wisconsin chapter of the Sigma Delta Epsilon sorority—now known as Graduate Women in Science. In 1925, she founded the UW School of Pharmacy’s chapter of the Kappa Epsilon professional pharmacy sorority, and she remained the group’s faculty sponsor until her retirement.

She consistently championed pharmacy as an appropriate and appealing profession for women. In 1925, she told the Daily Cardinal, UW’s student newspaper, that “Woman is making good in pharmacy work, because her work all through the ages has fitted her for it.” She also noted that the pharmacy school had recently seen “a great advancement in [the] numbers” of female students. [2]

Three years later, she bragged to the Cardinal that women in the pharmacy program were “excelling” and surpassing the scholastic record of their male classmates. She argued that “women are well suited to the profession,” and observed that “it is merely men’s prejudice that keeps women out.” She lamented—from personal experience, no doubt—“that women have to work harder for recognition in technical fields than do men.” [3]

Nellie Wakeman and UW SoP 1930s

Nellie Wakeman (back row, left) with students and faculty from the UW School of Pharmacy during the 1930s. Wakeman’s mentor, Prof. Edward Kremers is in the third row on the left. Image courtesy of the AIHP Kremers Reference Files.

Like her mentor, UW Pharmacy Director Edward Kremers, Wakeman believed in the value of history in pharmacy education. She presented papers on historical topics at meetings of the American Pharmaceutical Association, and she also encouraged her students to write about the diverse history of the profession. Wakeman was the advisor for Leo Vinton Butts, the first African American pharmacy graduate from the University of Wisconsin. She oversaw Butts’s research for his groundbreaking 1920 thesis, “The Negro in Pharmacy,” which was one of the first scholarly investigations of the subject. Two years earlier, she had similarly supervised Charlotte Rose Rath’s historical thesis about “Women in Pharmacy in the United States.”

Status of Women in Pharmacy

In the mid-1930s, the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy established the “Committee on the Status of Women in Pharmacy” to study the “problem” of women at schools of pharmacy and the difficulty many women faced in finding post-graduation employment. Wakeman agreed to serve on the Committee and published her fascinating 1937 article about “Women in Pharmacy” soon after.

Writing with the clear-eyed analysis of a veteran survivor of misogynistic institutions, Wakeman criticized the unfair “advantage[s]” enjoyed by men in “man-made institutions, ordained by men for men.” She explained matter-of-factly the type of discrimination and opposition often encountered by women in pharmacy and other professions: “There is a solidarity among men, a sort of a loyalty of man to man, which resents woman’s intrusion into fields so long held by man alone. As competition increases,” she wrote, “so does this feeling increase… which so frequently results in the employment of a man, clearly inferior in every respect, in preference to a better qualified woman.” [1]

Wakeman well understood the obstacles endured by many working women, but she was fundamentally optimistic about the future:

“The entrance of women into pharmacy, as, indeed, into all occupations, is but a part of a great world movement for the intellectual, political and economic emancipation of women…. This part of the movement, like the others, will go on. Difficulties placed in its way… will neither discourage nor stop it. Just as women have won for themselves a fair measure of educational and political equality, they are now struggling to gain economic equality—the right of every woman to earn her own living in her own way.” [1]

She firmly believed that she and other women would persist until they had “dearly won” these struggles against prejudice and discrimination.


Wakeman earned recognition for teaching and research throughout her career; and she continued to endure slights both large and small. Her academic achievements resulted in her inclusion in three editions (1933, 1938, and 1944) of the reference work American Men of Science: A Biographical Directory—the book would not change its title to American Men and Women of Science until 1971—but, despite the support of her pharmacy colleagues, University of Wisconsin administrators repeatedly denied her a promotion to Associate Professor.

In 1939, the Mortar and Pestle, a publication by the students at the UW School of Pharmacy, printed a lengthy biographical story about her. After recounting her credentials and her many accomplishments, the report called her a “brilliant chemist and one of our finest faculty members.” Nevertheless, the article repeatedly identified her as simply “Miss Wakeman.” [4]

After 33 years of teaching, Wakeman retired from the UW School of Pharmacy in December 1946. She continued to live in Madison with her three sisters, and, by her own account, she enjoyed “gardens, detective stories, and cooking.”

Nellie Wakeman Obituary

Nellie Wakeman’s obituary in the Wisconsin State Journal, March 24, 1952.

Wakeman died in Madison on March 23, 1952, after a lengthy illness at the age of 69. UW School of Pharmacy Professor George Urdang remembered her as “one of the pioneering women teachers in pharmacy” and called her a “good scientist… an excellent teacher and an exemplary human being.” [5]

Even in death, though, she could not escape the small indignities of being a woman in male-dominated spaces. Her obituary in the Wisconsin State Journal noted that she had been a “member of the pharmacy school faculty for nearly 30 years” and explicitly referenced her “doctor’s degree.” Nevertheless, the headline identified her only as: “Nellie Wakeman, U.W. Woman.”

In her 1937 article about “Women in Pharmacy,” Wakeman had written: “the best advice that can be given to women in pharmacy, or in any other occupation which men find desirable, is to prepare themselves as completely as possible for the work they are to perform.” She consistently argued that education—especially graduate education—would help better “prepare” women “as completely as possible” for the struggles they were likely to encounter.

It is fitting, then, that since 1957 her beloved Kappa Epilson has sponsored a Nellie Wakeman Fellowship “to encourage outstanding Kappa Epsilon members to pursue an advanced degree in a college of pharmacy graduate program in the pharmaceutical sciences.”

Dr. Wakeman would be proud.



[1] Nellie A. Wakeman, “Women in Pharmacy,” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 1, no. 2 (April 1937): 146-50.

[2] Daily Cardinal, May 28, 1925, 5.

[3] Daily Cardinal, March 22, 1928, 7.

[4] Mortar and Pestle 2, no. 5, AIHP Kremers Referrence Files.

[5] George Urdang, “Memorial: Nellie A. Wakeman” [unpublished], AIHP Kremers Reference Files.

#universityofwisconsinschoolofpharmacy #Womenshistory #historyofpharmacy #universityofwisconsin #gender #discrimination

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