The Women Behind the Science: Katharine Burr Blodgett
04 Mar 2024
- Elizabeth Bridges



In celebration of International Women's Day, we are highlighting Katharine Burr Blodgett and the impact her work has had on neutron reflectometry at ISIS.




image.pngKatharine Burr Blodgett was an American scientist who was an innovator in industrial chemistry and a pioneer for women in physics. Throughout her lifetime, Blodgett made multiple significant discoveries, some of which are key to research done at ISIS.  

When she was just a Master’s student at the University of Chicago, Blodgett contributed to the invention of charcoal filters used in gas masks. This filter contained activated charcoal which acts to trap toxins and prevent the users breathing the toxins in. It was during this time that her work and skills were noticed by Irving Langmuir, a scientist who worked at the General Electric alongside her father. Langmuir helped Blodgett pursue science at an academic level, a male-dominated field at the time, and secure a PhD position at the University of Cambridge. She moved to England for her studies and in 1926, Blodgett became the first woman to receive a PhD in Physics from Cavendish Laboratory. She studied under Sir Ernest Rutherford and researched the electron behaviour during mercury vapour ionisation. This significantly improved smoke screen technologies, which would later play a key role in the Second World War. 

Blodgett became the first woman to work at General Electric, where she worked with Langmuir on surface chemistry research. Together, they discovered that an organic film could be created from a solid surface placed in an aqueous solution containing organic molecules, and they created the Langmuir-Blodgett trough to make the film. It was this research that lay the foundation for the discovery of the first invisible glass in 1938 by Blodgett herself. This glass, known as Langmuir-Blodgett glass, had an anti-reflective coating made from controlling the oil layers deposited onto the plate/glass, making the glass over 99% transmissive. This invention built on Langmuir’s previous work on surface layers and therefore both scientists were credited for this technique.  This anti-reflective coating resulted in Langmuir and Blodgett’s research being used in everyday life with a range of applications such as microscopes, eyeglasses and camera lenses. 

The Langmuir-Blodgett techniques are essential for a large number of reflectometry experiments performed at ISIS, mostly involving organic multi-layers. Around 30% of reflectometry proposals involve biological membrane models, which can be created using Langmuir-Blodgett techniques. Neutrons are reflected from these membrane models to gain a molecular-level understanding of the structure, including their thickness, density, hydration, and composition, as well as interfacial roughness. In addition, the interaction of other agents, such as surfactants, polymers, proteins, or novel antibiotics, with these membranes can be studied and detailed structural changes can be observed. In 2015, the first outer membrane model of the Escherichia coli (E.coli) bacterium, suitable for neutron reflection, was made at ISIS in collaboration with Newcastle University. This was the foundation of the membrane models research at ISIS and has led to many high impact papers in this area of biosciences. This research is key to understanding how antibiotics compromise bacterial membrane function and improving antibiotic action.  

The vital work at ISIS is built on the pioneering work done by Katharine Burr Blodgett and her discoveries in surface chemistry; not to mention the invaluable use of her non-reflective glass to view this article! 

Click below to watch a video showcasing Blodgett and other female scientist and their work from General Electric in 1954: General Electric Women in Science - 1954 (​ 

Surface chemistry research began (arguably) with a woman and her washing-up. Anges Pockles observed the effects of soaps on water and began measuring the surface tension of water. Despite having no scientific background, her ideas were published and later bacame fundamental to Blodgett and Langmuir's research.​

Found out about more pioneering women and how their research impacts STFC:

Eleanor Dodson:

​​Lisa Meitner:

Donna Strickland:​ 


Contact: Fernie, Orla (STFC,RAL,ISIS)