black and white group photo with a red circle around a woman

The Future Must Be Created: The Story Of Billie (Carter) Nelson ’49

By Susan Daniel, Fred H. Rhodes Professor of Chemical Engineering. This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Olin Hall News.

As the winter of 1950 turned to spring in Wilmington, Delaware, Billie Nelson, née Carter, felt her thoughts drifting back to fond memories of that magical season on East Hill in Ithaca, New York. She felt an urge to write to her former professor, Fred H. Rhodes, and update him on what she and her husband, Earl, had experienced since earning their degrees in chemical engineering from Cornell the previous year. "We’ve had enough time to look at our jobs critically," she typed, "and would like to share our thoughts."

She composed her letter with the matter-of-fact style she proudly honed at Cornell, which she knew Rhodes would appreciate as much as he would some news from his former students. Affectionately known as "Dusty," Rhodes famously led the push to establish Cornell’s School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering in 1938 and served as the School’s inaugural director. His ongoing concern for his students was legendary. In a 1957 article in The New York Times marking his retirement, Rhodes was described by a colleague as "a father confessor to his students…and a one-man union getting good jobs at good pay for his graduates."

"Dusty Rhodes was himself no ordinary person, and he wanted extraordinary individuals as students," Cornell President Dale R. Corson said in 1976, the year Rhodes died. "He wanted to teach and train superior engineers. With a humanity covered with a veneer of gruffness and mild chicanery, he built the curriculum and the program forced his students to superior work, and then assured them of positions of status in the profession."

After training under Rhodes, both Billie and Earl, who were married on the same day they both graduated in 1949, quickly found work. In her letter, Billie reported that Earl was "enthused" about his work in the research and development department of Atlantic Petroleum. He was given significant freedom to try out new ideas, including extensive use of lab facilities. Meanwhile, her work at Dupont’s experimental station had made her feel "more than ever that there is a definite place for girls in industry." She quickly added a caveat: "If they don’t mind a desk job and aren’t fanatics about climbing around stills in jeans."

Of more than 60 students to graduate from the school 1949, Billie had been the only woman — a notable achievement and a distinction that, it quickly became clear, threw cold water on any assurance of status in the profession.

"There is no definite line of advancement for a girl in my position — the future must be created."

During World War II, prior to her arrival, Billie’s department had hired one "girl chemical engineer" who, she told Rhodes, "was allowed to wear overalls and work in the pilot plant." Then that woman decided to join her husband in Chicago, "and now there is a policy of not hiring girls to do the typical engineers’ jobs." While Billie was not lacking in work she found interesting, when compared with the men around her, she found the options for women to be limited, the pay less, and the environment needlessly hostile.

Billie felt confident that, in her department alone, there were "scores of jobs a technically trained girl could take over and handle as well as a man. The only thing is to convince management!" As for her odds of being in a position to alter management’s perspective, Billie wrote, "There is no definite line of advancement for a girl in my position — the future must be created."

Susan Daniel and Billie Nelson with a caption that reads "welcome to Hawaii"
Susan Daniel and Billie Nelson

More than seven decades later, Billie Nelson’s letter to Dusty Rhodes ended up on my desk in Olin Hall, which has served as Cornell’s home for chemical engineering since 1942. The correspondence arrived courtesy of another trailblazer.

Paulette Clancy was named the William C. Hooey Director in 2002 and became the first woman to lead what is now the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. She had become an emeritus professor at Cornell by the time I took on the role in mid-2020 and a few months into my term I received a file in the mail with a note from her saying that its contents were a part of our school’s history and should be preserved.

The file sat on the corner of my desk for months before I got a chance to open it. As the Fred H. Rhodes Professor, I got a kick out of seeing that it contained a letter addressed "Dear Dusty." As I read through the four carefully typed pages, I was struck by the power of the author’s observations, especially for someone fresh out of college, and her clear-sightedness about how things could and should be different.

I am steeped in awareness of the challenges and barriers that women continue to confront while pursuing education and careers in STEM fields. In 2007, I was hired as the second tenure-track female faculty member in our School’s history. In addition to my research and my administrative work, much of my career at Cornell has focused on fostering inclusive and empowering environments for our students, and especially for women. For example, I advised CBE Women, a group focused on the professional development and advancement of women in engineering for twelve years, handing the role off to assistant professor Rong Yang (our fourth female professor, hired 2019) in 2020. I also served a six-year term as the faculty-in-residence for Balch Hall, the all-women, first-year student residence hall.

I have been fortunate to witness significant progress when it comes to seeing women represented in STEM. In 2018, Cornell Engineering’s undergraduate population reached gender parity. While I was serving as our school’s director of graduate studies, we reached a high-water mark of 65 percent women in our entering Ph.D. class. And I have seen our students’ undergraduates and graduates of all genders go on to stellar careers. As the School’s current director, I have overseen the hiring of three more tenure-track women and several women lecturers.

Still, to hear this lone voice from the not-so-distant past so clearly articulating the difficulties and inequalities of the professional landscape was both sobering and inspiring. By the time I finished reading her file, I knew two things: 1) I desperately wanted to meet Billie Nelson and thank her for blazing a trail for the rest of us; and 2) given the time elapsed, such a meeting was almost certainly impossible.

"My folks were pioneers," she said of her Chinese mother and English father. "When they married in 1918, both parents pretty much gave up on them. They had to make their own way."

I recognized the name Earl Nelson from plaque inside Olin Hall’s Unit Operations Lab thanking the members of the Cornell community who contributed to its renovation. On it, "Earl C. Nelson 1949" is listed just above "Fred ‘Dusty’ Rhodes, Ph.D. 1914." So, I reached out to our alumni affairs office to see what they knew, if anything, of the Nelsons and I kept my expectations low.

Imagine my surprise to learn that Billie was still alive, still active and happy to receive visitors at her home in Hawai’i. One year later, I was on a plane heading for Honolulu with Dusty Rhodes’s "Billie Carter" file tucked safely in my suitcase.

Billie Nelson, now in her mid-90s, lives in a beautiful home on the island of O’ahu, which is also where she was born and raised. She and Earl bought the place in 1985. It sits on the side of a hill, and from the back deck you can look out on the Mokulua Islands about a mile offshore. We sat out there for over an hour and half and talked, one chemical engineer to another.

She did not recall any nervousness or discomfort about going all the way from Hawai’i to Upstate New York for college, nor about being the only woman in her class of chemical engineers. She traced the source of her determination back to her parents. "My folks were pioneers," she said of her Chinese mother and English father. "When they married in 1918, both parents pretty much gave up on them. They had to make their own way." From her very start, Billie learned that a person had to create their own future.

When she was 13 years old, Billie saw the attacking planes and heard the bombs falling on the United States Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. Very soon afterward, her high school campus was requisitioned by the U.S. military and her classes were relocated to some buildings at the University of Hawai’i. There, she discovered an interest in chemistry and physics. Her teachers noticed her spark as well. With their encouragement, she applied and was accepted to Cornell, which she had heard was a good school for chemical engineering.

"I didn’t really think anything of it," she said. "I was just doing what I had to do. It seemed like the natural thing. I wanted to go to school."

cover of Cornell Engineer magazine featuring two womenBecause no commercial passenger flights from Hawai’i to the mainland were readily available during the height of the war in the summer of 1944, she set out for college aboard a cargo ship with only the company of a few other girls making their way to the mainland. She was 16 years old. One of her father’s friends met her when she arrived in San Francisco a few weeks later, and made sure she safely got on a train. It took weeks to complete her journey to Ithaca.

"I didn’t really think anything of it," she said. "I was just doing what I had to do. It seemed like the natural thing. I wanted to go to school." Though she might not have realized it at the time, Billie was creating her future.

At Cornell, she dove into college life, turning her keen eye on her surroundings and working to elevate the women around her. She wrote for and served as editor-in-chief for the student-run Cornell Engineer magazine. In an article she wrote in 1946, she noted the "unprecedented number" of women enrolled in the college at the time: 34. The subject of the article was the Cornell chapter of the Pi Omicron Engineering Honor Society, which aimed "to encourage and reward scholarship and accomplishment in the field of engineering studies among women of engineering colleges." Billie was a founding member.

When I told Billie that I wanted to write a story about her, that she could be an inspiration to the women studying today, she was quick to push back.

"It was not an inspiration when I quit to have kids," she said. Billie ultimately left Dupont and focused on raising her four children, one of whom now lives just a few doors down with his family in Hawaii. "Nowadays, I would have done it differently. But it was just the thing people did in those days."

This suggestion that her path lacked inspiration may have been the only moment of disagreement between Billie and me. Her decision to stop pursuing a career in chemical engineering did not mark the end of her story. At the Smith School, we pride ourselves on preparing students to be capable of following any path they choose. When a guidance counselor told Billie’s high-school-aged daughter that career options for women were essentially limited to nursing and teaching, it reignited something. "I knew there were many more possibilities, and I wanted to be in a position to let kids know that," she said.

"I knew there were many more possibilities, and I wanted to be in a position to let kids know that."

Billie enrolled in graduate school at the University of Delaware, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in psychology. When she moved back to Hawai’i with Earl in the 1980s, she enjoyed a rewarding second career as a researcher at a school and focused on helping Hawaiian students create their futures.

I was sorry to learn that Earl had succumbed to brain cancer in 1988, likely a result of radiation exposure during his work at DuPont’s Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina. After Earl’s death, Billie received a settlement from the company, which is what she donated — in Earl’s name — to help renovate Olin Hall’s unit operations lab. "I’m glad it went to some good," she said.

As our conversation wound down, I faced the daunting task of trying to sum up everything I wanted to say to Billie and what her story meant to me. We stood at her door, and I took a final look at my host. I saw a straight-talking patient woman who had welcomed me into her home and allowed me to pepper her with questions about her life for a whole afternoon. I also saw a first-generation college student who helped build and grow a community for women engineers at Cornell, an individual who continued to contribute what insights and resources she could at different stages of life to help our school prepare our students for success. Here was someone who, despite many obstacles, remained committed to lifelong learning and serving as a role model for young women.

There are still many ways in which the future must be and is being created, but as Billie and I shared our experiences with each other, the differences told a story of progress. We can’t forget that. Paulette sent me a file with a seventy-year-old letter from a former student in it because she understood that Billie Nelson is an important person to our School’s past, present and future. I consider myself lucky to have met Billie. The last words I said to her were: "On behalf of women engineers and all engineers, thank you."

When I got home to Ithaca, I carefully returned Billie’s file to the Olin Hall archives for future generations to see.

Reeve Hamilton and Chris Dawson contributed to this article.