The first recorded chemists were two women.
How do we know? This clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia, dated to around 1200 BCE, whose inscription describes Tapputi-Belatekalllim and “(—-).ninu‚” (who we’ll call Ninu). The writing was made when the tablet was damp and is called Cuneiform after the wedge-shaped reed stylus used to make it. It describes Tapputi and Ninu as perfume-makers from Assur, one of the cities in Mesopotamia.
In ancient Mesopotamia, perfume was a standard religious offering and often used to anoint icons in sanctuaries atop the ziggurats (Mesopotamia’s pyramids). It was also used as perfume is today, and required great skill to make. Tapputi and Ninu used flowers, oil, calamus, cyperus, myrrh, and balsam to make a variety of perfumes.
Additionally, the tablet tells us that Tapputi used the first recorded still in history and wrote the first treatise on perfume making, which is now lost. Her revolutionary techniques are recorded in secondary sources, including distillation, cold enfleurage, tincture, and scent extraction. She also developed a technique for using solvents – like distilled water and grain alcohol – to make the scents lighter, brighter, further reaching, and longer lasting than any other perfume oils.
Tapputi and Ninu’s skills drew them lots of attention, and would take them to one of the highest positions of all. The tablet gives Tapputi the title ‘Belatekallilm,’ which meant ‘overseer.’ She didn’t just make perfumes for the royal family – she oversaw his entire household! Ninu, whose name is partially lost to us, is known as a female name and likely worked alongside Tapputi in the royal household. They were well paid, and one of their surviving recipes details a perfume salve specifically for the king made from flowers, oil, and calamus.
Though we know very little about Tapputi and Ninu beyond this tablet, their lives show us that women held high places in STEM fields and society long before we have assumed they did. Even though Mesopotamian society limited the rights of women, many have been recorded as being professional beer and perfume makers, tavern keepers, and midwives. As we encourage more women to join STEM fields, it’s important that we tell the stories of incredible women like Tapputi – and the high achievements they made in societies that we have assumed shunned them.
– Tiffany Rhoades
Girl Museum, Inc.
This post is part of our 52 Objects in the History of Girlhood exhibition. Each week during 2017, we explore a historical object and its relation to girls history. Stay tuned to discover the incredible history of girls, and be sure to visit the complete exhibition to discover the integral role girls have played since the dawn of time.
For more incredible girls in science history, check out our 2015 exhibition, STEM Girls.
Special thanks to Guilia Russo of the Vorderasiatisches Museum (Pergamonmuseum) in Berlin for her assistance in verifying information about Tapputi.