The Lost History of Women in Chemistry:The First Perfumer

On the day that this is published 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. Our first stop is the gates of the ancient city-state of Assur 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 Assyrian 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. The perfumer was Tapputi-Belatikallim. A chemist, perfumer, and manager who just so happened to have lady parts too, my word! What will those crazy Mesopotamians think up next?

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 Assyria during their lives. Tapputi was a high ranking court official, the  perfumer to the royal family, and provided aromatic products for temple worship. 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.

zig of ur
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, the original of which is 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 Empire by having the fragrant oils prepared in a concrete of fat and wax similar to a modern enfleurage pomade.

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 fragrance containing all the wonders of the empire such as rose, balsam, calamus, cypress, and myrrh.  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 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 Assyrian noblewoman?” [activate my super powered eye roll]

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 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

Past versions of this post identified Tapputi-Belatekallim as Babylonian, not Assyrian. It also indicated that she experimented with alcohol in her perfumes. This was an error on my part. I misunderstanding a source that compared her work to brewing but was not identifying her as a brewer.

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