The Lost History of Women in Chemistry: Tapputi, The First Perfumer

This post is part of  D/S Women’s History Month series, click here for more women from our alchemical past.

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On the day I’m sitting down to write this post, it is International Women’s Day, and all of March is Women’s History Month in the US, so I thought it would be a splendid time to talk about the lost history of women in the sciences, specifically in chemistry and perfume. Perhaps lost isn’t the right word. We didn’t lose most of these incredible women, their work has just been downplayed by historians, and their accomplishments have gone unappreciated for far too long. So let’s celebrate today and this month with some of the women that advanced our knowledge of the world and who made modern perfumery possible. First stop, the gates of Babylon to meet the mother of all perfumers.

Tapputi-Belatikallim & ()ninu

Anyone that is interested in chemistry or perfume should know the name Tapputi-Belatikallim. On a Babylonian cuneiform tablet dating back over 3,000 years, we have the first mention of a chemist, a perfumer, and the first recorded use of a still in all of human history. That chemist and perfumer was Tapputi-Belatikallim (Belatikallim is her title meaning mistress of the palace). A chemist, perfumer, and manager who just so happened to have lady parts too, my word! What will those crazy Babylonians think up next?

tablet.jpg

 

Tapputi did not work alone, her tablet references a collaborator whose name is sadly partially broken off. We can tell by the ending of her name, however, ninu, that she too was a woman. Tapputi and (who I’ll call) Ninu were influential women in Babylon during their lives. Tapputi was the mistress, or head overseer, of the royal palace and perfumer to the royal family. The first record of the paid position of a perfumer. Though not mentioned on the tablet, perfume was a standard religious offering from the royal court and was often used to anoint the icons that dwelt in the sanctuaries atop the ziggurats. So it is likely that one or both women also served a religious function as well. At the very least they would have been responsible for providing these materials for religious services.

 

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The Ziggurat of Ur

 

While Tapputi and Ninu were not the first people to formulate a perfume, they are the first anyone bothered to name individually as perfume creators. Furthermore, Tapputi wrote what may be the first treatise on perfume making, which unfortunately is now lost. Many of the techniques she discussed (which we know of from secondary sources) were centuries ahead of her time; once her work was lost, it took humanity almost 1,000 years to rediscover her skills. For instance, she didn’t invent the still, but she did modify the design of her perfuming still to get better results. She experimented with distillation, cold enfleurage, tincture, and other scent extraction techniques that would become the cornerstone of natural perfume making. She preserved the fragrance of delicate florals in transit across the Babylonian Empire by having the fragrant oils prepared in a concrete of fat and wax similar to a modern enfleurage pomade.

Her most revolutionary technique, however, was using solvents. After blending oils, essences, and resins, Tapputi cut them with a mix of distilled water and grain alcohol, creating something similar to modern perfumes. This alcohol-based perfume would have made her scents lighter, brighter, further reaching, and longer lasting than any perfume oil the Babylonians (or anyone) had ever seen before. However, this solvent use was limited because the grain alcohol was not the high-proof denatured alcohol we are used to today. Instead, it was not fully filtered and yeasty, basically beer. The combination of water and microbes from the low alcohol content would have been a breeding ground for bacteria in a pre-preservative society, with probably only a day or two more shelf life than plain water. I imagen the elixir and solvent would not be mixed until the absolute last minute to preserve freshness and one would need the resources of a palace to ensure quality beer was on hand at a drop of a dime. It is no wonder that Tapputi’s alcohol solvent experiments with aromatics would not be reproduced until the 12th century in Europe in the monasteries.

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Modern reconstruction of later Sumer/early Babylonian garb. Also, I could really get into guys with beards and eyeliner. Let’s bring that back.

 

We take it for granted, but picture a world were the only perfume used was a one-note oil of frankincense. Then someone comes around with a cologne containing all the wonders of the empire such as rose, balsam, calamus, cypress, and myrrh. This perfume isn’t a heavy dark oil but is light, cools the skin, and lingers for hours without reapplying. No wonder she got that cushy job and had all the scribes working their styluses over her innovation. Despite her intoxicating scents and innovative techniques Tapputi and Ninu’s work, however, was lost for a very long time. Even once Tapputi’s life was rediscovered it was little more than a footnote in the history of chemistry.

As you can guess, I was beyond excited when I heard about a Kickstarter to make a cartoon called Super Science Friends, with Tapputi as one of the main characters. All the other historical scientists/crime fighter on the show lived in the last 150 years and were depicted physically accurate based on photos and portraits. Their famous discoveries and personal quirks are endearing parts of their superpowers in the zany adult-oriented show. Tapputi however, is presented as a hag, dressed like Baba Yaga, with skulls hanging from her belt, nondescript war paint on her face, a bone through her nose and living in a hut. She is more swamp witch than a Babylonian chemistry maven. All I could think of while seeing the pilot was “Really fellas, that’s how you are going to play this? This is your interpretation of a Babylonian noblewoman?” [activate my super powered eye roll]

 

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What a dick

 

Worst than that she is the butt of most of the jokes for being depicted as old, fat, and sin of sins, having the audacity to think of herself as a sexual being despite these things…gasp. Marie Curie is also a super friend and gets a bit better treatment on the show, but still gets saddled with the angry feminist schtick. Needless to say, I was happy to see that they didn’t even make 1/2 of their goal. It would have been great to introduce Tapputi to a whole generation of young adults, but it seems that even after 3,000 years Tapputi’s legacy is still getting the shaft, now in cartoon form.

We can say, “oh it’s just a silly cartoon it doesn’t matter”, but it illustrates what happens when women are edged out of the process of writing our own history. When women’s contributions are not spoken of or suppressed, we end up potentially losing 1/2 of human history or leaving it in the hands of some dudes that may or may not treat it fairly.

So three cheers for Tapputi and her homegirl Ninu. Genuinely inspirational icons for female perfumers, scent chemists and the weirdo little girls that dream of becoming perfumers and chemists.

If you’d like to learn more about the history of women in science check out:

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World by Rachel Swaby

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity to the Late Nineteenth Century by Margaret Alic

Women of Science: Righting the Record Edited by G. Kass-Simon, Patricia Farnes, and Deborah Nash

Women in Chemistry: Their Changing Roles from Alchemical Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century by Marelene F. Rayner-Canham

 

 

 

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Shirin says:

    Hi I’ve been reading and searching about tapputi and her history. But I couldn’t find how her name was written on the tablet. Is there a way you can help me with this information? How her name was carved on the tablet and what were the symbols that indicated her name. Thank you

    1. DeathScent says:

      Hi Shirin, As far as I’ve been able to ascertain the tablets discussing Tapputi have not been photographed completely or their photos are not available online. Sadly a lot of the cuneiform tablets that have been discovered and were shipped off to European museums 150 years ago haven’t even been translated let alone catalogued properly and there is a real dearth of translators. Only about 200 people alive today can fully read Akkadian/Babalyonian. Near Eastern history has never received the funding and respect that Egyptology has gleaned. I can tell you the Tapputi tablets have been translated and are part of a larger stash of tablets on perfume referred to as the Kitāb kīmiyāʼ al-ʻiṭr wat-taṣʻīdāt that I believe is still being housed either in Goethe University or the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Germany. The source translations for the tablets that I have seen do not include re-drawings of the cuneiform, but I’m not a linguist so I wasn’t looking for that type of translations, they may be out there. Also, the original source translations are in German and Arabic, I’m not sure an English translation exists. Most scholars use the Arabic translation as it is more accurate. You may want to write to the Vorderasiatisches to see if they can help you locate an image of the tablet. I don’t know if Tapputi had a logogram or a transliterated name but I did take Akkadian at university and my unskilled guess would be the transliterated name spelt thusly
      𒁕 𒅤 𒋾
      I hope that is helpful to you.

      1. Shirin says:

        Thank you so much for giving up your time to reply to my question. I truly appreciate it. Your information was truly helpful. God bless you.

      2. Shirin says:

        Hi deathscent,

        We have spoken before and you sent me the Tapputi symbols. Is there any way you can provide me with your email for further information on Tapputi.

        Thank you

      3. DeathScent says:

        Under About D/S in the menu there is a contact page.

  2. Angelica says:

    Hi!! I just read this piece and I loved it!! The way it’s written and the information on it, all very amusing and enlightening. I’ve never been happier reading about science!! <3!!!

  3. Andrea says:

    So so cool. I teach children about scent at my company Nose University — and will certainly be sharing Tapputi’s tale with the kids! Much credit to you for researching, compiling and sharing this fascinating information. Do you mind if I post about this, linking back to you? Thank you for caring about the beautiful history of scent. Andrea

    1. DeathScent says:

      Thanks Andrea for your support, and yes, feel free to use any post with citation and link. 🙂

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