Anise, Anisette, Ouzo, Pastis, Raki

Women in STEM and Ancient Alchemists

Yes, there is an overlap between my work with Leading Women and my Sip.Savor.Adventure! hobby. It goes beyond the fact that my first official connection is with a woman-owned and operated distillery. The overlap goes back to the tradition of alchemy in ancient times. Here’s how I know.

Alchemists from the Ancient World

I turn to Wikipedia to learn about the distillation process. I’m shocked, shocked I tell you, to read that Cleopatra* the Alchemist (a woman who lived 1800 years ago) is believed to have invented the alembic still – a precursor to the pot still used to distill liquor.

I often use the hashtag, #AnonymousWasAWoman and am not surprised to read that “Cleopatra is a pseudonym for an author whose real name has been lost.” Apparently, women in STEM have had their voices muffled for at least 1800 years. In this case, at least, they get her gender right!

The alchemist known as Mary the Jewess lived perhaps as many as 200 years before Cleopatra. If you’ve ever melted chocolate or made custard or cooked delicate sauces, you can thank Mary for inventing the bain-marie. You can also thank her for inventing several devices important to the distillation process.

Women in STEM

This trip has offered celebrations of women in STEM:

  • I discover that a woman from Brussels¬† patented the first chocolate gift box.
  • During my day trip to Bruges I learn about the Beguines of Flanders who lived a life of religious devotion, but were pretty much free to do anything – including own property, have children and work in a variety of occupations. (It’s no surprise that these early feminists ran into resistance from authorities because they “seemed to enjoy the best of both worlds: holding onto their property and living in the world as laypeople while claiming the privileges and protections of the professed religious.”) Good for them!
  • I read about the alchemists whose work makes it possible to sip anise-flavored liquors around the Mediterranean.

These discoveries are a welcome surprise. Now I prepare to meet one of the women who own and operate the Varnelli distillery.

Lead ON!

*Not to be confused with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt.