Chemist? Nah, Definitely A Secretary or Pageant Lady

Chemist? Nah, Definitely A Secretary or Pageant Lady (Lessons In Chemistry Apple TV+ series: Season 1 Episode 1: Little Miss Hastings)

Victoria Davis | Managing Editor | Culture

My friend read the popular book, Lessons In Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus. It is a fiction novel that takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s chronicling the flagrant sexism and career ups and downs of chemistry laboratory technician turned TV cooking show host, Elizabeth Zott. To the plight of the story’s authenticity, the author utilized a 1950s chemistry textbook and no other chemical or scientific background or resources to write this novel. Enter now, my close friend and behavioral neurogeneticist, Dr. Hannah, who describes Lessons In Chemistry as “just a happy romantic comedy where the male lead dies randomly, the female lead gets sexually assaulted twice (once by her graduate advisor), fired for being pregnant, has her research stolen, turns her home kitchen into a lab that she uses for both cooking and science (so safe!), intersperses everything she says with chemical-sounding jargon that is often nonsensical, and at the end, somehow gets her own lab due to an extremely far-fetched fairy godmother plot that somehow made me feel WORSE about all the sexism she endured because the solution was such a fantasy. The dog was cute, though.”

Despite this, the novel was picked up by Apple TV+ and turned into an eight-episode mini series starring Brie Larson. This recurring column will review each episode from my perspective as an actual woman in chemistry.

The first episode, “Little Miss Hastings”, introduces us to Elizabeth Zott, a lab technician who makes coffee in the lab using chemistry glassware and helps doctorate-level chemists with their class assignments. Odd? Yes – Ph.D. chemists generally don’t accumulate in a laboratory classroom to run experiments together or complete class assignments. Ph.D. chemists typically have completed all intro-level tasks by this point in their career, and no longer require assignments to vie for a degree. But not so in the fictitious realm of Lessons In Chemistry! During the night, when she is the only person left on campus, Zott works on her own, unsanctioned research in the dark. When she runs out of ribose, she steals it from another lab—the lab of Calvin Evans. Evans, of course, finds out and reprimands her. Despite her telling him to his face that she is a chemist, he ignores her and talks over her. He is beyond appalled that she, a secretary—as secretaries in his mind are the only jobs women are employed to have at the university—would steal from his lab. Evans appears to be a struggling professor or researcher, who refuses to do work and is on his last leg with the university. Now that Zott’s secret late-night chemistry has been discovered, she is threatened with losing her job… unless she agrees to participate in the Little Miss Hastings pageant with the other female employees!

At this pageant, Evans stalks Zott and becomes more and more infatuated with her as she is forced to do a literal song and dance. When he learns that she is a masters-level chemist from UCLA, he starts sitting with her during lunch and eats her lunch. Yes, he literally eats her lunch, while picking her brain about her research ideas. Ultimately, he puts in a request to have her transfer to be a lab technician in his lab. We learn throughout the episode that Zott wanted to get her Ph.D. in Chemistry at UCLA, but things didn’t pan out for her. Through flashbacks triggered by men entering rooms that Zott is occupying and closing the door behind them, we get an inkling that there might have been a darker side to why Zott left UCLA with a masters.

While my initial reaction to the lack of laboratory safety—no lab glasses, no gloves when handling chemicals, eating and drinking in the lab—was one of horror, upon investigation, this is not an unrealistic portrayal of laboratory safety standards during the 1950s. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board was only established in the 1990s and only became operational in 1998. The flagrant chemistry puns tossed in throughout the episode made my eyes roll back more than once. I doubt that in the 1950s chemists walked around fascinated by and talking to each other about the elemental composition of the human body or chuckling to one another cautioning that they don’t lose their electrons, because they should really keep an ion them!

I cringed when Zott mispronounced basic chemical names like “amine” and “citrate.” The makers of the show clearly did not consult anyone with chemical knowledge. Nothing made me cringe more than when Zott was able to tell that a chemist wasn’t converting his carbonyl compound into an amine compound by simply staring at his flask with her naked eye. Truly astounding.

At one point in the episode, Evans smells a woman’s perfume, screams at her that he has a benzaldehyde allergy and runs out of the room vomiting. According to the NIH, clinical reports of an allergy to benzaldehyde are rare. Benzaldehyde is considered a safe additive in cosmetics and food as it degrades to benzoic acid and does not accumulate in the body—it is excreted in the urine. So the image of Evans projectile vomiting after one whiff of a lady’s perfume is not only ridiculously startling, it is also scientifically inaccurate.

I laughed at the scene where Evans and Zott worked in his lab together trying to set up a rotavap. They spent a long time setting it up like it was complex machinery. This scene was anachronistic, as the rotavap was only invented in 1949 and was first commercialized in 1957. So, it is historically inaccurate that two chemists in LA would be setting up a commercial rotavap together in 1951. Likewise, I’m not quite sure why abiogenesis research would require a rotavap, as this glassware setup merely removes solvent from desired synthetic products, whereas abiogenesis experiments were probed using a very different glassware setup that subjected gases to electric sparks to form complex organic molecules, simulating primordial atmospheric conditions.

My final critique of the first episode focuses on the use of the term “sex discrimination.” When Evans asks Zott why she can’t apply for a research fellowship, she answers with “sex discrimination.” While we, in the year 2024, are well-aware of this term, it was not actually coined until Ruth Bader Ginsberg began litigating discrimination on the basis of sex via Reed v. Reed in 1971.

I commend the author of Lessons In Chemistry for her idea to showcase discrimination and sexism in the sciences. This idea should be explored, but it should be done so with accuracy and authenticity—something this show sorely lacks. I am interested to see where episode 2 takes us, but I fear I am in for some more eye-rolling and disappointment at the inaccurate and unrealistic portrayal of a woman in chemistry. Stay tuned!

Dr. Hannah asked to remain (mostly) anonymous so that her mother-in-law, who recommended the book to her, would not Google her name one day to find an article where she is bashing the book.