Esther Conwell

Portrait of Esther ConwellEsther Conwell was a leader in semiconductor research. Her work explaining how electrons travel through semiconductors changed the face of modern computing.

Esther Marley Conwell was born May 23, 1922 in New York City. Always strong in math and science, she enrolled in Brooklyn College in 1938 when she was 16 years old. Her original goal was to use her physics degree to be a high school physics teacher, because those were the only women in science she had encountered. With the encouragement of her professor, however, Conwell went on to graduate school at the University of Rochester and received her master’s degree in physics in 1945. She continued her education and received a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago in 1948.

Conwell’s career spans 62 years of research into semiconductors, organic crystals, conducting polymers, and DNA. She had a yearlong internship at Bell Laboratories. While there, she wrote a paper explaining the fundamentals of semiconductors which served as a standard introduction to semiconductors for many people in the years that followed.

Conwell started working at Sylvania Labs (later known as GTE Labs) in 1952. She began her research there by studying the conducting properties of Germanium and Silicon. Later, she moved on to semiconductor research for telecommunications. In 1972, Conwell left GTE Labs and started working at the Xerox Webster Research Center in Rochester, New York, where she continued to expand her research on conductors. She retired from Xerox in 1998 and became a professor at the University of Rochester where she continued her research until she passed away after being hit by a car in 2014 at the age of 92.

Conwell received many honors for her work over the years, including membership in the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Engineering. She received the National Medal of Science in 2009, was chosen as one of Discover magazine’s Top 50 Women in Science in 2002, and received the Edison Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1997 – the first woman ever to receive that award.

Only six women in the United States received similar PhDs the year Conwell received hers, and she faced many challenges as she blazed a path for women in scientific research. Early on, she was payed less than her male colleagues and found fewer positions available to her because of her gender, but she persevered and later worked to encourage and mentor other young women to enter the sciences. She received the American Chemical Society’s Award for Encouraging Women into Careers in the Chemical Sciences in 2008 and the Dreyfus Foundation’s Senior Scientist Mentor Program Award in 2005. Her work as a mentor helped to pave the way for many other women to follow her footsteps into a successful research career.

Conwell married Abraham Rothberg, a writer, in 1944 and had one son, Lewis Rothberg, who is a professor in chemistry and physics at the University of Rochester, like his mother.

Adapted from Elsa Garmire’s tribute to Esther Conwell in the National Academies’ Memorial Tributes: Volume 20.