In celebration of the NMNH's Centennial, we have looked back at the people who made the Museum the place it is today. Scientist, curators, support staff all had their hand in making sure exhibits and research dazzled visitors and the scholarly community alike. However, one segment of behind-the-scenes support often goes unnoticed: the scientist's spouse.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Museum was not just a place of work, but a home away from home for many of the curators. Many of the scientists' wives aided their work in departments around the Museum. These women, who may have studied science themselves, created scientific drawings, sorted and catalogued specimens, typed papers, translated scientific articles and assisted in any way possible.
However, these women's contributions often get lost in time. As I have found out through this research, there is very little historical documentation about the work that they did. Curators' reports and correspondence fail to mention the hours spouses spent carefully organizing and cataloguing specimens. Their substantial contributions were rarely documented, and we are left with only hints about the roles these women played. As historians Pamela Henson and Sally Gregory Kohlstedt note, women worked on the peripheries of science, hidden behind the male relatives they supported. With this in mind, how do researchers uncover these women's stories? Photographic images provide intriguing clues when the written record is silent.
One of these women was Merle Crisler Foshag, wife of Curator of Geology, William F. Foshag. My interest in her started and ended with a picture. While gathering images for the Centennial, I came across an image of a young Merle Foshag examining specimens at the Museum, proving that she in fact did volunteer in the department. This was supplemented by a second image of her standing at the same table working with then Head Curator, George P. Merrill. Since my "Mysterious Mrs. Mineral" married William Foshag in 1923 and Merrill died in 1929, we can narrow down the date of the image. The caption identified the woman as Merle Foshag, but provided few details about her work. After many hours of combing through boxes and boxes of departmental files, expedition notes, and correspondence files, little else could be found about her contributions to the Museum.
As any good sleuth will, I then turned to biographical sources in hopes this would shed light on her departmental work. Much of the biographical information I found was in historical Washington Post articles. From the articles, I learned that Merle Crisler Foshag moved from Spokane, Washington, after World War One, to Washington, D.C., where she met and married William F. Foshag in 1923. Prior to coming to D.C., she studied art at the Los Angeles Institute and later continued studies D.C.ís Corcoran School of Art. Her love of art carried throughout her life. She was an artist active in the Washington, D.C., community and was well known for her watercolors. Mrs. Foshag showed work in the Art Club of Washington's annual shows and at the time of her death, her artwork was part of permanent collections at the Smithsonian and Dumbarton Oaks. She also participated in the Washington Watercolor Association, and Miniature Painters, Sculptors, and Grauers Society of Washington. Might this be another clue indicating she may have created scientific illustrations for the department?
I found additional evidence, two more pictures, in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives. Taken in 1929 in Tepoztlán, Mexico, my "Mrs. Mineral" is pictured with her husband in one image and her son, William F. Foshag, III, in the other. These images are perhaps my favorites. I initially thought that Merle Foshag accompanied her husband on expeditions. There was a small mention in an article that she traveled to Mexico, where Foshag did much of his field work, but in a search of expedition materials, notes and letters, I found no mention of her. But once again, the proof is in the picture - another small shred of evidence was found.
After her husband died in 1956, it seems Merle Foshag continued her association with the Museum. I learned from the final clue found in a Smithsonian Annual Report that in 1958 she cut the ribbon for the opening of the new Hall of Gems and Minerals. Later, she remarried another geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who was stationed at the Museum, Wendell Phillips Woodring. This might suggest that "Mrs Mineral" was still linked to the Museum community later in life.
Merle Crisler Foshag Woodring passed away on September 17, 1977. Though I have not found any written record of her work, I have surmised a little more about the life she may have led and will continue to look into her story. She not only worked in the department, but like many scientists' spouses, traveled to remote locations to help gather specimens and see new parts of the world. Her artistic skills may have come in handy for both the field and departmental work; however we cannot be sure of this. The one thing that photographic evidence helps prove is that she, like many scientists' spouses contributed to the Museum and without these images, their stories might have faded from history.
Courtney Esposito, Program Assistant, Smithsonian Institution Archives