Virginia Bartow

Virginia Bartow, professor of chemistry (1939-63) stands for a photo in a snow covered setting.
Virginia Bartow. Courtesy of University of Illinois Archives, Image #0005094.

Virginia Bartow was an esteemed professor of chemistry and well-respected member of the University of Illinois community. The first woman faculty member in the Department of Chemistry, her contributions to the field and the University went far beyond the classroom.

Virginia was the daughter of Edward Bartow, a renowned scholar and professor of chemistry. Edward Bartow was at one point the president of the American Chemical Society, of which Virginia would later become a member. He also taught at the University of Illinois, introducing Virginia to the Champaign-Urbana community at a young age.

Bartow attended Vassar College in New York to study chemistry. After receiving her undergraduate degree, she received both her Master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Illinois under William Noyes, who would become head of the Department. She went on to teach at Rockford College and the University of Iowa before returning to the University of Illinois in 1925.


In addition to chemistry, Bartow was interested in anthropology, travel, and history throughout her schooling. Her personal and academic notes include transcriptions of encyclopedias and other textbooks that detailed historical events and stories outside of the field of chemistry.

She was able to combine her interests in chemistry and history in several papers where she traced important people and developments in the field. Bartow believed it was important to recognize and remember the earlier advancements and scientists who made them in order to build on those developments. She continued similar work throughout her career.

Specifically at the University of Illinois, Bartow traced the history of the faculty and their contributions to chemistry both at the University and on a larger scale. Some of her earliest publications concerned the history of chemistry and particularly women in chemistry. She wrote about the opportunities that existed for women in the field, indicating that she was aware of her unique position as a prominent woman studying chemistry.

Bartow’s reach and involvement in the field of chemistry extended beyond a classroom setting. In addition to working as an assistant professor, she was a member of several different academic societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Iota Sigma Pi, a women’s honor society.

In 1951, she was elected chairman of the American Chemical Society’s division of History of Chemistry. This was another way to combine her love of both fields and allowed her to document the history of the society as she had done with the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois.

Bartow retired from the University of Illinois in 1961. Upon her retirement, she received countless letters of gratitude from students and faculty alike, as well as letters lamenting her leaving and asking her to stay. The positive impact she had on students and faculty was clear through these correspondences.

Bartow passed away in 1980 at the age of 84. Her impact on the university continues to be felt, especially for women in the department at the University of Illinois and the field of chemistry as a whole.

  • Noyes Laboratory, 505 S Mathews Ave, Urbana – Home of the Chemistry Department.

Department of Chemistry. (n.d.). Faculty Spotlight: Bartow, Virginia (1896-1980). University of Illinois College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

Virginia Bartow Papers 1908, 1917-19, 1923-30, 1935-80. University of Illinois Archives Record Series 15/5/37, Boxes 1-2.


Contributors: Gina Jagminas