Women's History Month: Bertha Lamme, Nation's First Female Electrical Engineer
When Bertha Lamme became the first female engineering graduate from The Ohio State University in 1893, The Lantern student newspaper reported “spontaneous applause broke over the crowd.”
Not only had she become the first woman to receive an engineering degree from Ohio State, but she was also now the first woman to receive an engineering degree (other than civil engineering) from any university in the United States.
The first Electrical Engineering (EE) course at Ohio State arrived after 1884 and was taught by Benjamin F. Thomas, a professor of physics. By 1889 this led to the first Mechanical Engineering in EE degree, which was administered by the new Department of Physics and Electrical Engineering. Ohio State Legislature appropriated $10,000 for a new EE building at the northeast corner of Seventeenth and Neil Avenues, which was completed the same year.
Lamme was among the first waves of Ohio State EE graduates who began earning their degrees by 1891. EE became an official department on its own in 1893 and by 1911 became its own degree, separate from ME.
According to an article by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), the engineering field was considered an industry reserved for men at the time. Lamme's path to graduation was inspired by her older brother Benjamin, who earned an engineering degree and went on to join Westinghouse. She saw his efforts and felt she could go the same path. Lamme went on to become a popular and notable student.
Her thesis on the Westinghouse generator attracted the attention of Al Schmid, a chief engineer at the Westinghouse Company, who recruited her to work on transportation projects.
Lamme’s achievements went on to inspire many other women to consider the STEM field.
Troy Eller English, SWE archivist, said some scholars maintained that if women entered higher education, they’d lose their “purity” and femininity.
“[They said women’s] reproductive and mental health would be irreparably harmed,” English said. “And their maternal instincts.”
As a land grant university, Ohio State was considered more progressive and less likely to exclude women from entering traditional STEM fields.
Ultimately, some traditions still took precedent at the time. Women were expected to leave the workforce after marriage. After the wedding to Russel Feicht, another Buckeye engineer at Westinghouse, Lamme retired.
Her only daughter, Florence, became a physicist for the U.S. Bureau of Mines Health Division and was published in several professional publications.
Bertha Lamme Feicht died in November 1943 in Pittsburgh. She was 74.