Born Elisa Leonida in 1887, this pioneer had engineering in her blood. Her maternal grandfather was an engineer. Her brother would become an engineer. But that wouldn’t make it easy for Elisa.
Determined to follow her interests, Elisa became one of the first women ever to graduate with a degree in engineering, in a time when science was not a girl thing. This chapter of Pioneers explores how the Romanian daughter of an army officer became an inspirational figure in engineering worldwide.
Elisa’s parents were Anastase Leonida, an army officer, and Matilda Gill. Born and raised in Galați, Romania, as one of ten siblings, Elisa was educated in Bucharest. She graduated from the Central School of Girls and achieved her baccalaureate from the Mihai Viteazul High School. Wanting to stay in Bucharest, her love of science led her to apply to do a degree at the School of Bridges and Roads in Bucharest. She was rejected on account of her gender.
Undeterred, Elisa Leonida applied further afield and in 1909 she was accepted to the Royal Academy of Technology Berlin (now the Technical University of Berlin), in Charlottenburg, Germany. Her acceptance onto the programme was not without challenge - it is thought that the Dean tried to use the argument that women should concentrate on Kirche, Kinder, Küche (church, children, cooking) to dissuade her. Another story recounts how a professor shouted at her telling her that a woman’s place was in the kitchen, not at a polytechnic. And her fellow students prevented her from taking part in the traditional festivities of matriculation - what we now might call ‘freshers’ week’.
However, she stuck it out and graduated with an engineering degree specialising in chemistry three years later.
Our compatriot, Miss Elisa Leonida, instead of studying Letters or Medicine, or worse, Law, studied engineering at Charlottemburg. In Engineering, the future of women is great, Miss Elisa Leonida has passed the final exam with great success, obtaining the engineer's diploma.
Minerva newspaper, 1912
The Romanian press reported positively on her achievement, writing:
The article went on to encourage as many girls as possible to follow her example.
Elisa Leonida is often thought of as the first female engineer in Europe, or even in the world. She was certainly the first in Romania, and the first female engineering graduate in Germany. But the world first goes to Irish Alice Perry who graduated six years earlier with a degree in civil engineering from Queen’s College, Galway.
Having notched up that coveted degree, Elisa Leonida turned down a job offer at BASF Germany, and began her career as an assistant at the recently formed Geological Institute of Romania.
Soon after, her career was interrupted by the Great War. Elisa joined the Red Cross and ran several hospitals, for which she was highly decorated. She received a medal of honour from the Ministry of France in Romania citing the following reasons:
Very zealous nurse, very dedicated, has shown good qualities of abnegation and disregard for danger, in the run of the epidemic of exanthematic typhus, in particular by giving her care to a French officer with typhus at Vaslui.
In 1917, she managed a hospital in the small town of Mărășești Romania that cared for casualties from the Battle of Mărășești - the last major battle between Romania and Germany. Romania came out victors, but the battle left more than 22,000 wounded.
After the war, Elisa returned to her work at the Geological Institute, now Elisa Zamfirescu, having met and married Constantin Zamfirescu, a chemist and the brother of the writer Duiliu Zamfirescu, in 1918. It is thought that Queen Marie of Romania and her daughter Princess Ileana attended their wedding.
Elisa and Constantin had two daughters, Măriuca and Ancuţa Zoe. Like mother like daughter, Ancuţa Zoe went on to become a chemist.
Work at the Geological Institute centred, of course, around geology. Zamfirescu went from being an assistant to leading 12 laboratories and participating in field studies discovering new resources of coal, shale, natural gas, chromium, bauxite and copper. She worked long hours and experimented with new techniques and methods for analysing minerals. She researched the production of copper sulphate, which would be used to destroy harmful fungi on cultivated plants, and developed an effective method of manufacturing it from copper ore. She also studied mineral waters in Romania, and the composition of water for industrial consumption. Another study looked at the use of bentonite in wine filtration - bentonite is still used to clarify wine today.
Whilst at the Geological Institute, she signed 85,000 analysis bulletins, the results of which were published in the series ‘Economic Studies’ by the Geological Institute. And she published monographs including Contributions to the Study of Bauxite in Romania (1931) and The Chemistry of Chromite in the Orsova Mountains (1939).
Outside of the Institute, she found time to teach physics and chemistry at the Pitar Moş School of Girls, and at the School of Electricians and Mechanics, headed by her brother Dimitrie in Bucharest. She was known to spend many hours training staff and mentoring young chemists as well as labourers and workers, giving lectures and courses, and inspiring in them a passion for science.
Zamfirescu was the first female member of the General Association of Romanian Engineers (AGIR) as well as a member of the International Association of University Women.
Zamfirescu retired in 1963, aged 75. Even then, she did not stop working. She campaigned for disarmament, filing a complaint with the disarmament committee at London’s Lancaster House about the dangers of atomic weapons.
Elisa Zamfirescu died aged 86 on 25 November 1973.
Her dedication and contribution to engineering have been recognised by her home country and indeed the wider world. The street in which Zamfirescu lived in Bucharest was named after her in 1993. In 1997, an award for women working in science and technology was created in her name - the ‘Premiul Elisa Leonida-Zamfirescu’. And perhaps the highest honour of the digital age - a Google doodle honoured her birthday in November 2018.
Engineering remains one of the least gender-balanced occupations today, but there are many drives to get more women into it, and that begins with encouraging their scientific appetites at school. In Bulgaria and Latvia, 30% of active engineers are women, and in Romania the number of female engineering students has been recorded as high as 35%. Schemes that support getting girls into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) are helping to improve these numbers and they owe a debt of gratitude to Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu, and her contemporaries, whose devotion and discipline forced the door to engineering open for all of us.