By Emily Hunter, Field Book Project
For women interested in science in the 19th and early 20th centuries, botany was the most accessible field to enter, but by no means was it easy. The waning Victorian period had placed an emphasis on women’s role at the center of the home, precluding most scientific pursuits. As an endeavor related to natural theology, however, the study of plants was viewed as an acceptable hobby for Victorian (and Christian) young women.
Botanical field work was also more open to women because, unlike in zoology, it could be conducted without handling weapons or killing animals (seen as a male domain). Views of the female sex may have limited chances for engaging in robust field work or traveling abroad, but women found opportunities to collect plants in their own backyards.
Many women pursued botany in this way. They started in-home herbariums, educated children on botany, and even joined professional associations.
As botany became more professionalized (about the mid 1800s) though, it became increasingly male-dominated. Because women were less likely to receive a formal education, they had a difficult time gaining professional employment and recognition.
While researching for this post, I was disappointed that I couldn’t find comprehensive (or sometimes any) biographical information for the women in our field book collections. Collecting under a male colleague or husband’s name may be to blame, or it may be that precious little is written about them. Still harder was finding images for many female botanists.
Here is what I did find. The Field Book Project is working to catalog the field notes of at least eight women botanists, including those highlighted below.
Josephine Milligan, collected circa 1889
Josephine Mason Milligan collected throughout the United States, but particularly in her home state of Illinois. She kept a home herbarium of wildflowers of Central Illinois which she later donated to the Smithsonian Institution after her death in 1911. She was an active member of numerous professional societies, including the Jacksonville Natural History Society and the Microscopical Society. She was a founding member of the Jacksonville Sorosis, a society of women who studied and discussed literature, science, and contemporary issues.
M. Alice Cornman, collected circa 1917-1918
M. Alice Cornman’s work with ferns began with writing descriptions and copying data for botanist Ellsworth P. Killip. Eventually, this led to collecting plants herself in Panama and Guatemala. Modestly discussing her own work, Cornman writes, “…while my descriptions often lacked scientific terms, they were descriptive.”
Reading her (probably unpublished) essay, “Collecting Ferns in Panama,” I was taken by Cornman’s humble account of her own budding appreciation for plants. She begins,
“I want to tell you a little of how I became interested in ferns, scientifically, for of course I had always loved ferns just as ferns, but the little brown spots on the under side of the frons, you have probably noticed them, did not appeal to me, they seemed to detract from the beauty of the ferns.”
Approaching the plants at first with an aesthetic eye, Cornman learned through her assistance to Killip that the “little brown dots” were sori, with complex patterns and functions. Thus was the beginning of her fascination with botany.
Velva Elaine Rudd, collected circa 1949-1999
Velva E. Rudd served as a curator in the Department of Botany, U.S. National Herbarium from 1959 to 1973. A legume specialist, she researched and published extensively on various tropical species of Fabaceae. The Mexican legume genus Ruddia is named for her.
Field notes of Velva E. Rudd.
In addition to these, the Smithsonian also has the field notes of:
- Cleofe Calderon
- Mary Agnes Chase
- Alice Carter Cook
- Mrs. William Owen
- Nina Prey
While I don’t personally know a woman botanist, a few of my closest female friends are scientists. Through listening to their experiences, I have learned that it still requires great fortitude and determination to succeed in a male-dominated discipline. Here’s to women botanists and all women who have fought and continue to fight to do what they love and to contribute to the advancement of knowledge.
This post is part of a series celebrating Women’s History Month. Stay tuned for more, and check out related posts on women in science on The Bigger Picture.
Bassett, P. D. (1925). The Jacksonville Sorosis organized: Founded November 30th, 1868. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), 18(1), 209-212.
Bonta, M. M. (1995). American women afield: Writings by pioneering women naturalists. College Station: Texas A&M University.
Gianquitto, T. (2007). “Good observers of nature”: American women and the scientific study of the natural world, 1820-1885. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Kohlstedt, S. G. (1978). From the Periphery: American Women in Science, 1830-1880. Signs, 4(1), 81-96.