The first known chemist was a woman. A Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet from the second millennium B.C. describes Tapputi, a perfumer and palace overseer who distilled the essences of flowers and other aromatic materials, filtered them, added water and returned them to the still several times until she got just what she wanted. This is also the first known reference to the process of distillation and the first recorded still. Tapputi also worked with tinctures, scent extraction, and cold enfleurage. She wrote the first treatise on making perfume, but this chemistry text is now lost.
Tapputi and Ninu
Tapputi is also known as Tapputi-Belatekallim. “Belatekallim” means “female palace overseer,” indicating Tapputi held a position of importance at the Mesopotamian court. The cuneiform tablet says she worked with another woman name (—)ninu (the first part of the name cannot be read). One of Tapputi and Ninu’s recipes survived to the present day. The recipe is for a perfumed salve made using calamus, myrrh, oil, and flowers, intended for use by the king.
- Alic, M. Hypatia’s heritage, a history of women in science from antiquity through the nineteenth century. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1987. 22.
- Rayner-Canham, Marelene, and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham. Women in Chemistry: Their Changing Roles from Alchemical Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century. 1st edition. Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2005.