Carolina Henriëtte MacGillavry

By Miles Henderson, Nika Persic

Who is behind the name that is so difficult to spell in online delivery forms, and even harder to yell into a phone at 2 a.m.? To many students, Carolina Henriëtte MacGillavry is known only by the street that is her namesake, Carolina MacGillavrylaan — the convenient avenue that ties the academic building of AUC, the local SPAR, and the dorms together into one brisk five minute walk. 

Born 22 January 1904, a native Amsterdamammer, MacGillavry grew up in a science oriented environment. Her mother taught primary school and her father was a neurosurgeon and amateur entomologist, studying insects in his spare time. Her father enjoyed sharing his interest in science and nurtured Macgillavry’s curiosity by giving her little assignments.

Later, she would begin her studies in Chemistry, focusing on Crystallography at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA). This was during a period when research in quantum theory began to develop immensely — more importantly, a period when few women were seen in higher levels of academia. After completing her doctoral studies, MacGillavry continued to work in Chemical Crystallography until war broke out in 1940, receiving accolades for her published work. Even then MacGillavry tried to continue her research during German occupation of the country.

MacGillavry’s contributions to academia were abundant and impressive. Leaving out many of her other accomplishments: she was a pioneer of the Direct Methods of Crystallography, edited the 1962 edition of International Tables of X-ray Crystallography, headed a hub of international researchers in her laboratory, and became the first woman to be appointed to The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1950. After becoming a prominent professor in Chemical Crystallography, she noted its need for “artistry, agility of mind, and intuition”.

Although MacGillavry was fiercely dedicated to her work, leaving behind a legacy of scientific rigour, she was also humble. She was described as having a “warm personality that radiated intelligence.” Giving a very modest final lecture in 1972, shortly before her retirement from research, she characterised her contributions to the field of Crystallography as “small adjustments.” Afterwards, she would maintain a link with her work by studying artistic symmetry and geometry, until passing away on 9 May 1993. She is buried in Utrecht with her husband JH Nieuwenhuijsen.

As an active member of the Association for Women in an Academic Education (VVAO), MacGillavry advocated for more women in the field of science. To honour her legacy, the UvA Faculty of Science introduced the MacGillavry Fellowship in 2010, which provided funds for female researchers in the hope of promoting diversity in science. Although this fellowship expired in 2014, it was reintroduced again last year in 2019 for the purpose of appointing talented female researchers to UvA’s tenure track. Of the 420 applications received from around the world, seven female researchers were selected and have been appointed to various professorship positions at the UvA.

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