Spanish chemist Piedad de la Cierva: an “invisible” pioneer

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Piedad de la Cierva

I am calling Piedad de la Cierva here an “invisible” pioneer because the only information available on the internet is in Spanish, not in any other language. And even in Spain, she is not yet well known. As a chemist, she was a pioneer in three distinct areas, forced to switch gears due to external circumstances, which she developed into opportunities. In Spain of the 1940ies, she was years ahead of her time and therefore failed in her aspirations for a life in academia, turning instead to decades of fruitful industrial research.

Piedad de la Cierva Viudes (01 June 1913 – 31 Dicember 2007) was one of the first female chemists in Spain. After studying in Murcia and Valencia, she obtained her PhD in the National Institute of Physics and Chemistry situated in the Rockefeller Building in Madrid.

De la Cierva later recalled:

“I remember my great surprise when I realized that I was able to calculate the distance between the chlorine and sodium atoms of a salt crystal. And how impressed I was that God, Creator of the Universe, had distributed the atoms, so small, in such an amazing way”.

In 1935, she moved to the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen for her investigations on the nuclear transmutation of aluminum and the separation of bromine isotopes. In Copenhagen, she stayed at the Convent of the sisters of the Assumption where she fondly remembered the friendship of her tutor, Mother Hildegard. In her travels to Paris and Berlin, she met Irène Joliot Curie, the daughter of Marie Curie, herself a renowned chemist and Nobel Prize Laureate, Lise Meitner who would later immigrate to Sweden and the USA, and the couple Ida and Walter Noddak.

She returned to Madrid in early 1936 mounting a beta – counter, an instrument to measure the emission of radioactive β particles. But the Spanish Civil War, starting in July 1936, disrupted her plans. She spent some time as a refugee in the Norwegian Embassy where she met Prof. José María Otero de Navascués who would later invite her to join a project in Optics. During the war, she was a teacher of physics and chemistry and a nurse in the war zone. When she returned to Madrid in 1939, the department for Radioactivity research was largely damaged, making a return to this field difficult.

She, therefore, continued her research work at the Institute of Optics, part of the recently created Spanish National Research Council (CSIC, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas), becoming the first woman to be part of that institution. She was also linked to the university as Assistant to the Chair of “Atomic-Molecular Structure and Spectroscopy” at the Complutense University of Madrid.

At that time, de la Cierva had become a renowned scientist who had managed to overcome all the barriers placed in the way of women with an interest in science. It seemed that gender inequality did not exist, at least not in her own experience. Until she wanted to go one step further and applied for a University Chair. In 1941, three new Chairs in physical chemistry were opened for Valencia, Sevilla, and Murcia. There were five candidates, three males, and two females. Piedad de la Cierva, together with María Teresa Salazar, another chemist who held a PhD from the University of Madrid since 1931, spent time as a researcher in Madrid and France, and had written 5 scientific publications prior to the Civil War.  Both were deeply disappointed that, despite their excellent credentials, they were not even considered, simply for being women. De la Cierva decided to leave academia and look for other opportunities, while Salazar applied for other academic positions, though without success. They were ahead of their time, the first female University professor in Spain was appointed only in 1953.

De la Cierva continued to work with Prof. Otero de Navascués in the Instituto Optico “Daza de Valdés” (called after the first Spanish ophthalmologist Benito Daza de Valdes) established by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) in 1945 and the LTIEMA (Laboratorio y Taller de Investigación del Estado Mayor de la Armada), a Research Center of the Navy covering activities from applied science to prototype development, created in the same year. Her research was centered on anti-reflective surfaces on optical glass that could improve vision during the night. She presented her work at a congress in Paris. In 1947, she also attended the Barcelona Trade Fair to exhibit the prototypes manufactured at the Institute.

In 1948, she had the opportunity to spend a year at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in Washington DC, and to visit the University of Toledo College of Glass Technology in Toledo, Ohio, and the Bausch & Lomb and Kodak manufacturing facilities in Rochester, NY. 

She remembered the time after her return from the US:

“It was not easy to start. I gathered as many samples of raw materials as possible with the conviction that if we wanted to industrialize the country, we first needed to typify our natural products. I set up the laboratory and began to analyze. Then I built the first assay furnace and started the manufacture of small crucibles. It was slow and heavy to start from nothing … And we continued working until, at last, with little means and a lot of dedication, we saw the first pieces of glass, clear and clean as diamonds, come out of our hands.”

LTIEMA changed its scientific interests, turning away from optics. In the 1060ies, de la Cierva therefore embarked on a new field conducting research on the resistance of rice husks for the manufacture of refractory bricks to be used in factory furnaces and ship boilers. This research earned her a new public recognition. During this time, she directed the PhD thesis of Guadalupe Ortiz de Landazuri (already presented on our blog)

In the mid-1970s, de la Cierva, at the age of sixty-three, and after decades of intense work, decided to retire early. Piedad recalled her exciting life trajectory as follows:

“I leave behind a long past, which I will remember as a bit hard at times, but full of meaning, work, joy, and peace”.

Also in her life as a Catholic, she was a pioneer: In 1945, she learned to know Opus Dei through “The Way”, a book written by Josemaría Escrivá. In 1952, she joined Opus Dei as one of the first Associate members, a vocation that led her life to an intensive apostolate in her family and her scientific endeavors.

On December 31, 2007, de la Cierva passed away without much public attention, in spite of her great achievements.


Sources:

Wikipedia (es)

Inmaculada Alva Rodríguez, Piedad de la Cierva: una sorprendente trayectoria profesional durante la segunda república y el franquismo, Arbor 2016

Ana Romero de Pablos, Pioneras pero invisibles: las calculistas del Laboratorio y Taller de investigación del Estado Mayor de la Armada; 2016

Giovanni Zen, Piedad de la Cierva Viudes en el Instituto de Óptica “Daza de Valdés” y su contribución en la investigación óptica, Óptica Pura y Aplicada, 2018, DOI: 10.7149/OPA.51.4.50022

Sandra Ferrer, Piedad de la Cierva: La desconocida científica Española, Aleteia 2020

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