Defining Food Safety

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Defining Food Safety


Mary Engle Pennington was a trailblazer — pioneering food preservation and storage techniques, while also breaking glass ceilings.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Pennington’s love of science was inspired by a book of medical chemistry she read when she was 12 years old.

Attending the University of Pennsylvania in 1892, she was denied a bachelor’s degree because women could only receive certificates of proficiency at that time.  

Only three years later, in 1895, Pennington, at the age of 22, received her doctorate from the university.

After completing her doctorate Pennington was encouraged to apply for a job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry (now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) by the Bureau Chief himself, Harvey Wiley.

Hesitant to apply for the lab chief position because it was unlikely this it would be given to a woman, she took the Civil Service examination where Harvey Wiley changed her name to “M.E. Pennington,” concealing her gender.

After receiving the highest possible score, she was offered the job.   


As the lab chief, Pennington developed revolutionary standards for the safe processing of chicken, safety procedures to avoid bacterial contamination of milk, and spoilage free methods of shipping and storing poultry, eggs and other perishables foods.

During the latter part of her career, Pennington directly influenced the design of refrigerator cars, modern refrigerated warehouses and consumer refrigerators.


Pennington was widely recognized during her time as the leading authority on the handling, transport and storage of perishable foods and the application of refrigeration.

Your refrigerator, freezer and perishable groceries were influenced by the development of the standards and technologies for food preservation pioneered by Pennington’s work.  

In addition to her 2018 Induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame®, Pennington has been recognized with the American Chemical Society’s Garvan Medal and is a member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the American Poultry Historical Society Hall of Fame.

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