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Her-Story, Then: Maria The Jewess

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Kate Mulgrew: Chemical engineer or alchemist? The proof may be in the pudding, but this Sister of Moses has a life story as shrouded in mist as the kitchen device named for her. I am Kate Mulgrew with her story. [music 00:15]

Alchemy, it calls to mind a mystic in a wizard's robe distilling gold from dross. But ancient alchemy was the equivalent of modern chemical engineering, and alchemists expanded the frontiers of science.

Alchemist Maria the Jewess is thought to have lived in Egypt between the first and third centuries A.D. Founding mother of Egyptian and Hellenistic alchemy, she was also honored as Maria the Prophetissa and a Sister of Moses.

Maria engineered distillation instruments still used today. She invented stills and reflux devices, including the kerotakis a reflux condenser which created a closed system in which to distill elements.

In early alchemy four basic elements, earth, water, fire, and air, could be rotated or transmuted into one another. Maria's kerotakis device rotated water into air by heating it to the boiling point, and turning it into steam.

The kerotakis was the precursor to a device used in kitchens today, the double boiler or bathed Marie, meaning Marie's bath. A double boiler is a closed distillation system used to melt chocolate and cook puddings, custards and delicate white sauces. The steam from the bottom pan bathes the top, cooking the ingredients without curdling them.

Those fond of a bowl of chocolate pudding on a cold winter's night are indebted to Maria for inventing a sophisticated and enduring household technology. The humble pudding, truly a transmutation worth its weight in gold, courtesy of Maria the Jewess, a woman of alchemy and engineering.

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Her story is made possible by the National Science Foundation.

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