Tapputi, a perfumer, is not only the first known female chemist, but the first chemist of any gender known to history. Her title, Belatekallium, meant female overseer, which tells us that she worked at the royal palace in Mesopotamia.
The making of perfume or aromata was an important industry in ancient Mesopotamian life. The preparation of the materials was extensive and highly technical.
We know of Tapputi from a cuneiform tablet which bears her name as well as her own recipe for a perfume which describes using oil, flowers, myrrh and calamus to be distilled and filtered with water. This also is the first known reference to a still.
If you prepare flowers, oil and calamus as a salve, and you have tested the flowers; you set up… a distillatory. You put good potable water [into a hairu pot]. You heat tabilu and put it in. You put 1 qa haminu, 1 qa iaruttu, 1 qa of good, filtered myhrr into the hairu put. Your standard in this is the water taken and divided. You operate at the end of the day and in the evening. It remains overnight. It becomes steeped.
You filter this solution… with a filter cloth into a hirsu pot at dawn, on the rising of the sun, you clarify from this hirsu pot into another hirsu pot. You discard the residue. You use 3 qa of purified Cyperus in the solution with the aromatics. Discard the inferior material. You put 3 qa myrrh, 2 qa pressed and filtered calamus in the solution with these aromatics… 1 ½ pure gullu… two beakers… small beakers… you filter… kanaktu in a sieve. You decant the oil in the hairu pout… in the solution [you rub that which was with the solution overnight] [you examine] the comminuted material. You remove [its bad part]. You filter this solution which [you clarified into a distillatory] … 3 qa… [you throw]… balsam into this solution in [a hirsu pot]. [you kindle a fire]. When the solution is heated for admixture, [you pour in the oil]. You agitate with a stirrer. [When the oil, solution, and aromatics] continue to dissolve, [you raise] the fire… you cover the distillatory on top. [you cool] with [water]. When the sun rises,[you prepare] a [container for] the oil, solution and aromatics.
You allow the fire under the distillatory to die down. You remove the distilled and sublimed substances from [the trough of the distillatory].
When the sun [rises],[if] they continue to dissolve in one another and [the fire rises], you cover the [top] of the distillatory. You cool. You prepare a flask for the calamus oil. You put a filter cloth over the flask. You remove the dregs and residue left in the distillatory.
This is the preparation of flowers, oil and calamus for [salve] for the king according to the recipe of Tapputi-Belatekallium, the perfumer.
- Early Arabic Pharmacology – Martin Levy
- Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic