After 17 years, a mystery has been put to rest. Mark Griep is a chemistry professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s also kind of a detective. He’s been chasing down the mystery of a woman named Rachel Lloyd, a largely forgotten chemistry professor from the late 1800s.
Here’s what Mark Griep knew about Rachel Lloyd in 2011: she was the first American woman to receive a PhD in chemistry, and, while she was a professor at UNL, she figured out how much sugar could be extracted from sugar beets, a huge contribution to an important industry in Nebraska. Griep also found hints that Lloyd may have been the first woman chair of the chemistry department at UNL. But, unlike other former chairs, her portrait wasn’t on display, so he wasn’t sure. Until he found a story in the Red Cloud Chief.
“The Red Cloud Chief from 1916 said they put some material in the date stone of Avery Hall. And they mentioned a variety of things were in there. Including photographs of Hudson Nickelson and Rachel Lloyd. And they called her the second chair!” Griep said. “This gave me evidence, that they recognized, even in 1916 that she had been chair of the dept. And I wanted to get into that time capsule. Because I wanted that photograph.”
Griep, eventually, got permission to dig the time capsule out of Avery Hall, earlier this year on a chilly rainy day in April.
According to the International Time Capsule Society’s database, there are over 10,000 time capsules buried on earth. The phrase time capsule was first coined in 1939, when the Westinghouse Electric and Manufactuing Company buried a literal metal capsule filled with artifacts at the World’s Fair, to be opened 5000 years later.
LuAnn Wandsnider, professor and chair of the Anthropology department at UNL, says humans have been creating things like time capsules for a long time.
“When people are putting up pyramids in Mesoamerica or when people are establishing these giant earthworks all over the midcontinent of North America, this is like 1500 years ago, often times there’ll be some kind of ceremonial activity that results in kind of a time capsule, that’s been contrived by people to create a record about an individual and also about our time and place,” Wandsnider said.
And that’s exactly what the UNL chemistry department did in 1916. At least, that’s what Griep thought. He wasn’t sure. He only had that one newspaper article as evidence. But three hours later, they found it.
“That was just an incredible moment of relief when we actually saw the time capsule,” Griep said.
And when he opened the box?
“The deeper you went the more fungus there was on this stuff,” Griep said. He described the smell as a combination of old paper, fungus, and sulphur released from degraded rubber. “And when we got to the middle we found a little white book. There was no print on the front, it was just a white book and I flipped through it and there was the photo. My wife and I looked at each other and (gasp) that’s what it is! The thing I’ve been looking for!”
The book itself, turned out to be a biography all about Lloyd, written by her brother-in-law. It’s the only copy that exists.
Griep unveiled the contents of the time capsule to the public for the first time this month, at a conference he organized about women in chemistry and named for Lloyd.
“So this is the box! It is a copper box that has oxidized a lot on the outside. But it is, fresh on the inside…I was hoping that in this box, there would be a photo of her, and this IS the photo of her and you can see even the pattern on her dress,” Griep said to the audience of 80 at the banquet.
Griep was recently successful in getting national recognition for Lloyd too. And Lloyd’s portrait is now hanging with the rest of the former department chairs in Hamilton Hall. For Griep the conference is the end of a long journey to recognize Rachel Lloyd for her accomplishments as a chemist.
“I’d been trying to get something named after Dr. Lloyd since 1997 and here was something I could finally do,” Griep said.
Wandsnider says making a time capsule, or something like it, is a way to establish your claim on a place.
“You’re sort of marking your presence here and in the future and that allows those future generations to hearken back and say look, we have been here.”
“You look around Hamilton Hall, it’s named after a male professor who was here in the 70s, you see all these big influences, the teachers that you have, the people that you look up to to say like this is why you’re interested in chemistry,” Schuyler Chambers is a third-year Chemistry major from Los Angeles. ”But female names are a lot harder to come by in the chemistry community. I think through the research Professor Griep has done, it has really opened a door for people begin able to see a little bit about the work she’s done and the influence she made here. As a female chemist, that gives me that much more motivation to say, look, I belong here, I can do this.”