By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
This is a tale of surprise, discovery, and anticipation—the story of Hilda Hempl Heller. But to get to her story I have to tell you a little about her ex-husband, Edmund.
Bacteriologist Hilda Hempl Heller (b. 1891) worked at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The photograph was taken by Watson Davis at a scientific meeting in Toronto, Canada, August 1924. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Acc. 90-105, Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s. SIA-SIA2008-3770 .
Edmund Heller is a recurring character in my cataloging life. I’ve run into his materials in three different departments. Smithsonian collections document the majority of his collecting history. Heller and his materials have made an impression on me. Why, you might ask? He traveled extensively and collected for a lot of institutions over his career. Additionally, I have wondered how the Smithsonian ended up with so many materials that were not from his time employed by the Institution. If you want to know about this part of the story, check out my April 23, 2012 blog post.
I’ve worked on the collections of other extensive collectors, but never did I lack a feel for the individual’s personal life as I did with Edmund Heller. Heller recorded a lot of his opinions, observations, and professional interactions in his journals. I can tell you about local staff he hired, travel challenges, his fascination with local produce -- but I only recently found out he was married and had gone on three expeditions with his wife.
After doing some research on Heller, it became pretty clear that he was very good at his job, but perhaps a challenging personality. His wife was bound to be unusual; Hilda fit the bill.
I found out about Hilda while preparing a blog post for women’s history month. Many of the women whose work we catalog are from early in the twentieth century and lacked access to formal higher education. A colleague mentioned to me that she thought the department had accessioned photographic documentation of Hilda Heller’s participation in Edmund’s field work. Few of the women in Smithsonian's older collections worked in the field, let alone produced images, so I was very excited.
Initially Tammy Peters (Supervisory Archivist at SIA) and I knew very little about his wife, but I had run across the name when researching the locations of Heller’s papers outside the Smithsonian. There is a collection of her and her husband’s photographs from expedition work done for the Field Museum in Chicago. We learned early on that she was a scientist. We were able to locate a digitized news clipping announcing their divorce after ten years of marriage. After some more digging, we found out that not only was she a bacteriologist, having earned her PhD, but she also had taken part in three of her husband’s expeditions before they parted. One of these is documented by her images at Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA).
We found that after her divorce, she researched and conducted field work in Peru. Publications about her work and her correspondence are part of the Science Service archives collections at SIA. She was a longtime correspondent and friend of the Science Service founder, Watson Davis.
Science Service Director Watson Davis (1896-1967) was taken in Geneva, Switzerland, at a United Nations conference in 1965 or 1966. Smithsonian Institution Archive Acc. 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s. SIA2008-0896.
So I’ve covered the surprise and discovery. You might ask, what is the anticipation? The collection that includes her field work images is still in the midst of conservation treatment; there are a lot materials to process, so it will be quite a while before I am able to safely handle and catalog the collection. So I will have to wait. Did I mention I’m not fond of delayed gratification?