Jessica C. Linker, University of Connecticut
Science Hill Female Academy Records, The Filson Historical Society, Louisville, KY.
I began my professional work – exploring women’s historical relationship to scientific practice – through a quirk of geography; I grew up in the same town as Almira Lincoln Phelps, the famous nineteenth-century botanist, and have spent the last decade chasing her across time and space in order to sate my curiosity. What circumstances had permitted her to become a scientist? Who had taught and encouraged her? At first, Phelps seemed an anomaly. Yet, in tracing Phelps’s teachers and students, I discovered a widespread culture of American women engaged with science. By the time I opened Sarah McGrath’s herbarium at the Filson Historical Society in Kentucky, I knew I wanted to write about the various ways women practiced science between 1720 and 1860. So I have sneezed my way through many volumes of dried plants hoping to reconstruct botanical pedagogy at female academies via a close reading of these documents.
McGrath created her herbarium while attending Science Hill Female Academy, a female boarding school located in Shelbyville, Kentucky. Julia A. Hieronymus Tevis founded the academy in 1825; it became a feeder institution for Wellesley College by the early twentieth century. As may be gleaned from its name, Science Hill offered a cutting-edge program in the natural sciences, which successfully produced hundreds of scientifically-literate graduates before 1860. Typically, coursework consisted of chemistry, botany, and natural philosophy, but Tevis also offered specialized training in rotating topics that complemented scientific lectures held at local universities and lyceums. In the 1840s and 1850s, these topics ranged from ornithology to galvanism.
It is difficult to reconstruct the classroom experience in the absence of explicit commentary, but McGrath’s May 1834 herbarium reveals much about how botany was taught at Science Hill. Field work was encouraged: McGrath collected thirty three specimens of both cultivated and wild plants, all but two of which were identified by class, order, genus and species.
Rosa parviflora. Science Hill Female Academy Records, The Filson Historical Society, Louisville, KY.
The recorded classes and orders indicate that McGrath identified her plants using the older, Linnaean taxonomic hierarchies. In contrast to the newer natural system, which structured botanical taxonomy around genetic relationships, the artificial Linnaean system grouped plants by the number of pistils or stamens a flower possessed. It was not uncommon for girls to learn the artificial system before the natural system; Almira Phelps believed the relative simplicity of Linnaean taxonomy made botany more accessible to female students. In lecture, McGrath would have learned plants’ reproductive systems so she could determine class and order by counting plant parts, then would have used a descriptive index to identify the plant’s binomial name, given as Genus species. These indexes required fluency in botanical Latin, a bastardized form of classical Latin invented to create a universal terminology for describing plants. To identify Baptisia tinctoria (Wild Indigo), for example, McGrath needed to pick out the following description from all the others listed in class Diandria, order Monogynia by comparing them to her dried specimen:
Baptisia tinctoria – transcription of botanical description appears below. Science Hill Female Academy Records, The Filson Historical Society, Louisville, KY.
"Very glabrous and branching: leaves ternate, subsessile; leaflets wedge obovate, round obtuse stipules obsolete, oblong, acute much shorter than petioles; racemes terminal, legumes ovate, long stiped."
These technical terms would have been explained in class, but if McGrath forgot their meanings, she could check definitions in her text book, which was carried afield with her. The specific language of the Baptisia tinctoria description indicates that McGrath probably used an early edition of Amos Eaton’s Manual of Botany or Almira Phelps’s Familiar Lectures on Botany to identify her plants.
In addition to taxonomy, students were taught how to preserve their specimens. Once collected, plants were stored between sheets of absorbent paper as they dried; drying time depended on the thickness and moistness of the plant. Flowers were opened to expose pistils and stamens before being pressed, such that descriptive identification could be verified by the dried specimen. McGrath used a simple mounting method: she cut slits in her album’s pages to form loops that would hold each plant’s stem in place. Blossoms were ephemeral, so seeking specific specimens required time to search and foreknowledge of a plant’s preferred environment. Plants needed to be pressed within a small window of time to prevent withering, or uprooted and carried home in a wet bladder or sphagnum moss.
To summarize: collecting, identifying and preserving specimens could be incredibly time consuming. Creating even a small volume of plants required both dedication and training. My plea as a historian would be this: do not dismiss women’s herbaria as decorative albums of pressed plants or mere hobby. They are, in fact, concrete evidence of women’s long-standing interest and skill in botany.
The author would like to thank the Filson Historical Society for the use of their images.