By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
78-10629. Mary Jane Rathbun, carcinologist at the United States National Museum, at left with Katherine J. Bush of Yale University, second from left, Charlotte Bush and Eloise Edwards at the Marine Biological Laboratory and United States Fish Commission Station at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, probably in the 1890s.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we are posting several articles discussing women’s field notes. In this article I wanted to provide an introduction, and share examples of the women we’ve come across while cataloging.
Early in my time at the Smithsonian, I learned that women have long been associated with the sciences at the Smithsonian. Early in the twentieth century, many of these women were not hired as official scientists like their male counterparts. The women often lacked formal education in the field. Their male counterparts who lacked formal training could compensate for this through field work. However, as historian Pamela Henson discusses in two articles, cited below, upper administrators were sometimes reticent to women participating in field work in an official capacity. These administrators cited concerns about the health or safety of female staff during such ventures. If women did achieve a title of scientist, it was usually after years of work within a department.
Women with an interest in science often came to be a part of natural history departments through pursuits that were more socially acceptable like scientific illustration, working with plants (Invading Arcadia, p. 439), or through their personal relationships. Almost all the women I’ve come across either started as illustrators, worked in the field of botany (as will be discussed later this month), or through marital or blood relationships (as wives, sisters, or daughters) with men in scientific fields.
Women carved out opportunities where possible. If they were paid employees of the Smithsonian, they most likely worked within the institution walls. Few managed to be paid staff and do field work. Some of the most prolific female researchers at the Smithsonian spent little if any time in the field, and thus have no field notes in our Registry. Mary Jane Rathbun, (zoology) and Doris Blake (entomology), for example, spent decades at the National Museum of Natural History, with voluminous quantities of material documenting their research, but they worked in the offices, identifying and illustrating specimens. These women would make fascinating women’s history research topics, so we encourage you to check these women out.
Women who collected often did it as opportunity and time presented itself; their specimens cover short periods of time or limited geographic range or both. Some of the women whose notes (prior to 1970) we’ve cataloged include:
- Margaret Sordahl (wife of Smithsonian staff member) collected 1930-1931 at Mt. Brukkaros, Africa.
- Thora Stejneger (sister of zoologist Leonhard Stejneger) collected in Norway, 1898-1900.
- Lucille Mann (wife of William Mann, director the National Zoological Park who has been a topic of a one my earlier blogs) was the primary documenter for her husband’s collecting around the world.
Then there is Mary Agnes Chase. Mary Agnes Chase, even among women in science at Smithsonian, is unusual. She is a fascinating figure, well-known at the Institution, having had a long and distinguished career in the Department of Botany well before women in the sciences were common. I wanted to write something about Chase from a new vantage, but am now thinking she can probably speak more eloquently for herself.
Watch for upcoming Field Book Project posts on women in science, including women in botany, and excerpts of Mary Agnes Chase's correspondence while working in the field in Brazil, 1929-1930, and a Flickr set documenting Chases' botanical work. Also look at The Bigger Picture this month as they feature posts discussing the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ “Women in Science” Flickr set.
For more information about Doris Blake and Mary Jane Rathbun mentioned above, see:
Henson, Pamela M.(2003). 'What Holds the Earth Together': Agnes Chase and American Agrostology. Journal of the History of Biology. 36(3), 437-460. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4331826
Henson, Pamela M.(2002). Invading Arcadia: Women Scientists in the Field in Latin America, 1900-1950. The Americas. 58(4), 577-600. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1007799