Betty Lou Raskin, Hopkins researcher, dies

Former Johns Hopkins head of plastics research and Towson University professor advocated for women in science

  • Betty Lou Raskin
Betty Lou Raskin
December 31, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

Betty Lou Raskin, an advocate of women in science who had been a Johns Hopkins University researcher and Towson University faculty member, died of septicemia Dec. 17 at Bayview Medical Center. She was 86 and lived in Pikesville.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Eutaw Place, she was the daughter of Dr. Moses Raskin, an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist. Her mother, Rose Frank Raskin, was acting superintendent of nursing at the old Sinai Hospital on Monument Street.

Dr. Raskin attended the old Robert E. Lee School on Cathedral Street and was a 1940 graduate of Western High School. She earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Goucher College, and a master's degree in chemistry and a doctorate in educational psychology, both from Hopkins.

She worked at the Hopkins Homewood campus for many years. She was head of plastics research and development at the radiation laboratory.

As early as 1958, she began speaking out for women in science. In an Associated Press article, she said, "Why dig deeper for a more inferior male mind when we haven't scratched the surface of our female brainpower supply?"

She blamed Madison Avenue for making a "mink coat," not a "lab coat," the symbol of success for the American woman. "They have emphasized leisure time, not hard work and originality," she said.

At the time she was one of a small number of U.S. women working in research science.

"I work primarily with foamed plastics, exciting new materials that have thousands of applications — everything from baby bottle warmers to insulation in satellites. To my knowledge, I am the only woman in the country who has such a position," she wrote in a 1959 article, "Woman's Place Is in the Lab, Too," for The New York Times Magazine.

She held four patents, including one for what was known as "Holey Smoke." Backed by funds from the Air Force, she developed a way to fluff particles of plastic in the atmosphere. She sold her patent to Dow Chemical and suggested her creation could be used for skywriting, smokes to protect crops from frost, military smokescreens and signals, seeding rain clouds and creating screens for movie projection or ads in the sky.

In the article, which was reprinted in The Reader's Digest, Dr. Raskin recounted being the lone woman at a national conference at the Society of Plastics Engineers. There were 2,000 in attendance and the speaker addressed the group as "Lady and gentlemen."

She said, "I was that lady. … In this country, we cling to the idea that science is a 'man's field.' " She noted that 140,000 young women were then graduating from colleges and universities and that fewer than 100 were engineers.

"Virtually none receives a doctor of engineering degree," she said, adding later in the article that she had addressed a seventh-grade science class about plastics.

"Following the lecture, a ponytailed redhead asked me if I were a real scientist or an actress-scientist," she wrote. Dr. Raskin ended the article by saying, "Such advances come slowly, to be sure. But I think we are starting to accept the fact that a lady can look just fine in a lab coat."

When government research grants ended in her field in 1967, she changed careers and began teaching psychology at Towson University, where colleagues said she applied her skills as a research scientist. While there, she began study in a new field, consumer behavior, which she treated as an interdisciplinary subject. They said her courses became popular with business majors as well as other students.

"She was highly dedicated in terms of her teaching and expected her students to be so, too," said a fellow faculty member, Donald Cassatt, who lives in Oak Crest Village. "She developed a consumer behavior course a decade before it became a popular topic."

Stuart Miller, with whom she shared a Stephens Hall office for many years, recalled Dr. Raskin as being "firm with students" and "assertive in her role as an advocate for women in the sciences." He said she was a role model and motivated women in those fields.

"She was a genuine person, who was easy to know and easy to talk to," said Dr. Miller, who lives in Randallstown.

In her free time, Dr. Raskin read widely about politics, current events and finance. She also enjoyed travel, shopping and attending theater.

Private services were held Dec. 21 in Savannah, Ga.

Survivors include a brother, Dr. Howard Raskin, a retired gastroenterologist of Pikesville; a sister, Dr. Joan Raskin, a retired dermatologist in Pikesville; two nephews; and a niece.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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