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STORIES / Clara Cynthia Benson

Clara Cynthia Benson

As the first woman to graduate, complete a PhD, and teach in chemistry at the University of Toronto, Clara Cynthia Benson’s career of firsts transformed more than her scientific field.

A portrait illustration of Clara Cynthia Benson.

Born in 2000

In 1899, Clara Cynthia Benson made history as the first woman to graduate from the University of Toronto with a chemistry degree. In 1903, she achieved another milestone, being one of the first two women to earn a PhD at the University. Following her doctorate, Benson became one of the University’s first female professors, teaching at the Lillian Massey School of Domestic Science. During World War I, she made the remarkable discovery that the chemical properties of food and explosives could be analyzed using the same methods – revolutionizing munitions labs’ depth of analysis. Moreover, she played an active role in developing the University of Toronto’s women’s athletics program, serving as the Women’s Athletic Association’s inaugural president from 1921 until her retirement in 1945. The Clara Benson building, dedicated in her honour, remains a part of the university’s athletics facilities.

Benson’s impact lives on through the Canadian Society for Chemistry’s annual Clara Benson Award, presented to a woman whose work in chemistry has made a distinguished contribution in Canada.

Explore more women who transformed Toronto.

Further Resources
Learn more about Benson in the University of Toronto’s archive
Explore Benson’s story as chronicled by The Canadian Encyclopedia

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