August 14, 2022

Women’s History Month: FDA Spotlights Food Safety Pioneer Mary Engle Pennington

Mary Engle Pennington was the first female lab chief of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Her research “helped revolutionize the food supply, making more safe, fresh foods available at affordable prices, particularly in newly industrialized areas of the country,” according to the agency, which is spotlighting her career for Women’s History Month.

ME-PenningtonBorn in 1872, she studied chemistry and biology at the Towne Scientific School at the University of Pennsylvania. At that time the school did not award B.A. degrees to women, so upon completing her coursework she instead received a “certificate of proficiency.” In 18995, she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, which had become one of the only schools in the country to grant such degrees to women.

Unable to find work, she started her own company called Philadelphia Clinical Laboratory where she conducted research. Her first project was ice cream. It was frequently sold to school children as a treat and frequently contaminated with dangerous bacteria.  She work to educate farmers about handling raw milk.

After the Pure Food and Drugs Act (the Wiley Act) became law in 1906, FDA chief Harvey Wiley, M.D. asked Pennington to head the Bureau of Chemistry’s Food Research Lab. Familiar with her work and aware that she achieved the top score on the Civil Service, Wiley knew Pennington was the best person for the job. Knowing that not everyone would feel the same way, he disguised her gender by referring to his top candidate as M.E. Pennington.

Pennington’s cold storage research at the FDA led to the recognition that fresh foods could keep longer when kept at a constant low temperature. She discovered that keeping constant low temperatures also kept bacterial counts low, a discovery that would prove important in trying to establish food quality benchmarks. She published booklets to educate the public on proper food storage,

She left the FDA in 1919, but continued her work on food preservation and cold storage.   Her research influenced Clarence Birdseye as he perfected his flash-freezing technique. She founded the Household Refrigeration Bureau -which aimed to help consumers safely use refrigeration techniques; designed refrigerators and refrigerated warehouses. Her work improved the health and well being American consumers. She died in 1952.


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