The death of Gertrude Neumark Rothschild on November 11 at the age of 83 ended a remarkable, though at times insufficiently recognized, scientific career and an equally remarkable campaign to obtain the recognition and economic remuneration that her accomplishments deserved. Professor emerita of materials science and engineering at Columbia University at the time of her death, Rothschild had made essential contributions to the development of the LED screens that are now so ubiquitous as to go all but unnoticed.
Also unnoticed by many for many years were the patents that Rothschild held on her work. Like most women scientists of her own and earlier generations, who generally worked in fields overwhelmingly dominated by men, she long failed to get credit equal to that of men with commensurate attainments — a pattern most famously played out in the life of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin’s now-famous “photograph 51” was an important basis for the formulation of the structure of DNA that earned the 1962 Nobel Prize for James Watson and Francis Crick. Franklin died of cancer at the age of 37, several years before the Nobel was awarded, without receiving the recognition she deserved.
Rothschild, however, lived to vindicate her contributions. She sued, and prevailed over, major corporations that had infringed her patents, receiving millions of dollars in settlements. “People thought that because she was a woman” — and one who stood only 5 feet tall — “they could just walk all over her. She would say, ‘They’re being unfair and I’m not going to let them get away with that,'” said her Columbia colleague I. Cevdet Noyan, quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Money, however, was never the main motivation for her lawsuits, friends say; rather, she was motivated by a drive for justice. In both her pathbreaking scientific work and her unshakable determination to defend her right to recognition, Gertrude Neumark Rothschild blazed a trail for other women scientists to follow.