Virginia Zerfass Deal (Mrs. Carl Hosea Deal, Jr.) “Ginney”
Born Sept. 20, 1922, Dansville, New York (up-state near Rochester in farm country)
Education: Dansville Schools, Duke University (BS Chemistry)
U.C. Berkeley, Diablo Valley College, Mills College.
Children: Julia Z. (1956)
Carl H. (1958)
Milton Z. (1959)
Nicolaas R. (1964)
Hobby: breeding Burmese cats
Ancestor Johann Adam Zerfass was born in Pennsylvania in 1742.
The family came to New York State in 1813 in a covered wagon for the rich farmland.
Virginia played in that same wagon, still in the Zerfass barn, as a child.
As a child, Virginia was interested in science, music and doing pen and ink sketches. Her parents bought her a requested chemistry set and a wonderful $3 microscope. After a few unplanned explosions, Virginia’s chemistry was moved to the concrete basement of their home on Zerfass Road.
Her family raised fruit trees and shrubs for the wholesale trade, and fared relatively well during the depression years. At least, on the farm there was food to eat.
She was graduated from High School in 1939 and continued on there one more year as was allowed, because of the economic depression. Her last summer there was spent working gratis in a hospital assisting at autopsies and other laboratory work.
She was accepted at Duke University in North Carolina and entered with the help of a government loan available to science students. During this time she held a part-time job involving analytical problems with an analysis for fluorine on an NDRC project (The National Defense Research Committee was formed in 1940 to fund scientific research toward the war effort). She was Art Editor of the “Archive” (a Duke literary magazine), president of the Pegram Chemistry Club, Staff Artist for the Zoology Dept. and was also a member of the Phi Mu fraternity (“sorority”).
While at Duke she met her future husband, Carl Deal, who was a North Carolinian in chemistry graduate school. She was the only one in his “Quant and Qual” class who asked questions, he said. Her lab notebooks were full of “why’s.” They were given permission to “date” by Prof. Paul Gross (“Pappy”), head of the Chemistry Department.
On April 15, 1944 they were married in the Duke Chapel. They accepted jobs with Shell Development Co, the research labs for Shell Oil in the San Francisco Bay area of California (sometimes referred to as “Petroleum U.”).
By now the U.S. was in WWII. Shell was in a hurry for the new chemists to arrive. When Virginia went to CA to start work, Carl was still in graduate school in the East. Ginney went by train from Raleigh NC, changed in New Orleans, changed in LA and again changed trains in San Francisco. She was met at the train in Oakland CA by the personnel manager of Shell, Mrs. Elizabeth Ainsworth, who was holding up Ginney’s wedding picture. Mrs. Ainsworth took Virginia to her own home in Berkeley, as she thought it improper to put a young lady in the same hotel where they put the “men” hirees. Mrs. Ainsworth became a long-time friend and was also the sister of John Steinbeck.
Working in chemistry was very different in those days. In 1949 Virginia’s annual salary was $4,632 with $595.20 withheld federal taxes. Carl’s annual salary was $6,036 with $813.60 federal tax withheld. Even so, their combined salaries were more than the salary of the company’s president. This was very different from today, when CEO’s now may take 1000x or more of the salary of an average worker.
Virginia’s official job as a chemist was analytical research in the fields of viscosity, molecular weights, polarography, potentiometry and the development of test methods. She had 4-5 lab assistants whose work she supervised. They were doing the first potentiometric titrations.
Most of her “bench work” was applied research, working with all sorts of concoctions that only an oil chemist could cook up; finding a method of analysis for some compound which might be so transitory that no one had ever had it in hand and, if necessary, designing an instrument to aid in its analysis.
There were many semi-official tasks which added variety. One was an assignment outside the analytical department to compile and illustrate a manual on the preparation and presentation of technical information. It was called “The Report Manual” and was 3” thick when finished. It was for the staff to use in writing their various kinds of reports and in giving verbal presentations.
She and her husband designed and constructed an ACS (American Chemical Society) exhibit for the California State Fair (Subject: Chemistry in Agriculture) which was awarded a gold plaque as the outstanding educational exhibit.
She was requested to design pages for a Shell “Safety Calendar” in which each month showed many safety violations – game: find the violations.
She made many cartoon posters to facilitate the sale of War Bonds during WWII.
She illustrated many a farewell card for departing friends and decorated service anniversary cakes.
When she first came to Shell, the Physical Chemistry Department was making penicillin in the “The High Lab” (this was a multi-story room for accommodating very tall distillation columns). Cutter Laboratories were just around the corner, and Shell was doing the first pilot plant development for mass penicillin production. That was one of the first things Virginia worked on.
The only other women in her department were lab assistants and office help. There was only one other female chemist in the whole company, Eleanor Mitts, in the Organic Department.
Virginia was featured in the “Women at Work” section of the Petroleum Engineer Magazine in 1954. She was a California nominee for “Oil Woman of the Year” (Desk & Derrick Club) and she was the first woman to give a paper before the API (American Petroleum Institute) in the West – and only the second in all API history.
Virginia enjoyed her association with the ACS, especially the California Section, which always met at U.C. Berkeley. She once sat beside Linus Pauling at a dinner meeting where he was to be the speaker. There were many interesting people and names around in those days that made marks in history. The Deals would often picnic in the Berkeley hills with George Pimentel and his wife in the ‘40’s. Carl knew Robert Oppenheimer, and was friends with Dave Packard, before his name became forever hitched to Bill Hewlett. Carl’s first “office mate” was Al Nixon, who later became President of the ACS. There was a Shell Research Club which was an affiliate of Sigma Xi: this group had regular meetings with splendid speakers.
When the war ended, Virginia had several PhD’s as underlings (back from the war). They worked together very well, and were good friends. It was thirty years later before Ginney learned how much these men resented coming back from war to work for a “woman.”
Some of the (now) funny things that happened in the lab those days were: people using the lab ovens (meant for lab samples) to bake potatoes, lab assistants snuffing out cigarettes in acetone, sinks equipped with benzene for washing hands and people not often wearing goggles or gloves.
At the sink in the analytical lab was a big vat of hot chromic acid for cleaning glassware, and stored beside it the glass cover. Next to this were three cans of solvents: acetone, MEK and benzene. These had a pinch clamp on a spout of tubing which dribbled into the sink and out into Emeryville Creek and into the Bay. Every 2-3 weeks the creek would catch fire and one time it burned down the railroad trestle!
When Virginia was about two months from giving birth to her first child she was “released” to give birth and to return whenever she wanted. Well, she did in fact return at the age of 66 to the relocated Westhollow Research Center in Houston. But times had changed. They refused to hire her as an employee, but used her as a “temp” through Kelly temporary services. In this way they avoided any benefits and prevented her the few remaining years of service needed to earn her pension. When her husband Carl died three years later, she lost all pension benefits.
This is another big difference today in that big companies no longer “care” much about employees. There was a time when people had real loyalty to their company, and the company would take care of its people – but seldom any more.
Late in life Virginia went back to work at the Westhollow Research labs library in Houston. She did things for them which usually never got done, because they needed a chemical background, some technical know how and computer skills. She put their 1500 periodicals into a very fancy database, set up the library CD-ROM system, and provided instructions for the library staff and chemists for how to use it.
Two of the papers Virginia co-authored were:
Determination of Basic Nitrogen in Oils
V.Z.Deal, F.T.Weiss and Theodore T. White
Analytical Chemistry 25 426 (March 1953)
Potentiometric Titration of Very Weak Acids
Virginia Z. Deal and Garrard E.A. Wyld
Analytical Chemistry 27 47 (January 1955)
Virginia’s career in science came at an extraordinary time and place. The post-war years carried the momentum of war-driven efforts toward peace-time objectives. The San Francisco bay area was a western crucible for science, with U.C. Berkeley, Stanford University, the Lawrence labs and a host of emerging industries closely aligned. The atmosphere was positive and ambitious, and R&D efforts looked forward beyond the horizon. Shell Development Co. had the culture of an extended family, and the president of the company knew the face of every employee. Social gatherings and company outings were common, and there was a real sense of camaraderie in the workplace.
Her interest in science began with a chemistry set, a microscope, and some unplanned explosions. She pursued this interest through college, and launched into her career as a woman, by filling the void of absent soldiers. Her first project was the penicillin pilot plant in support of those soldiers, some of whom later made it home to work under her at Shell. Today there aren’t those barriers to “women in science” which Ginney launched through long ago, but there are still chemistry sets and microscopes.