The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The stylish woman with bright eyes and an eager smile appears almost ethereally exuberant. By January 1937, when she posed in a flowered hat and sporting two orchids, Jane Stafford (1899-1991) was earning wide respect as a medical reporter, as a "typewritten bridge between the M.D. and the ultimate consumer." An earlier photograph, taken when she first joined the Science Service staff, sent a different message. That image may explain why one potential employer initially pegged her as "just another doll" - until she quickly, cleverly, and accurately fulfilled a test assignment.
Stafford had been born into a life of privilege (her father was a successful Chicago attorney) but she built a professional reputation with intelligence and hard work. At Smith College, she majored in chemistry and, after graduating in 1920, worked briefly as a hospital technician. Laboratory life offered first-hand glimpses of clinical medicine. Then, on the staff of the American Medical Association's popular magazine Hygeia, Stafford learned how to write for popular audiences and also acquired her lifelong love of writing.
When Stafford and her widowed mother moved to Baltimore (where her brother Edward was beginning medical training), she scoured the area for jobs. Fortunately, Science Service's medical editor had just quit. Stafford's chemistry degree, hospital experience, and intelligence outweighed any unfamiliarity with news deadlines. From 1928 until leaving in 1956 to work at the National Institutes of Health, she explored all aspects of medicine, from tuberculosis to toothaches. In the 1940s, she wrote about doctors on the battlefield, nutrition on the home front, and the "war on polio." As she explained in 1935, Science Service had few "taboo" subjects: they discussed venereal disease, pregnancy, "and all the glands and hormones." Although the organization's director "did not like the word 'intestine' and generally we avoid [the word] urine by calling it kidney secretion or excretion," Stafford assured former Hygeia colleague Mildred Whitcomb that the topics were always chosen by "scientific importance or news value."
Life for a female journalist was not all work, of course. Covering a medical meeting might include dinner with other science journalists or sampling local entertainment. After attending a bacteriology conference in New York City in January 1936, Stafford wrote Whitcomb that she had seen "three good plays": Dead End, Porgy and Bess, and Boy Meets Girl. That summer, Stafford and her mother vacationed in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware ("Nearby, quiet ocean resort, very charming, nice people, no crowds, cool and not too expensive. Had a pleasant time, swimming, bridge, dancing, reading, knitting and sunning. Came back with much suntan, and promptly had to write a story on that subject for Today Magazine.").
And the following month, Stafford confessed to Whitcomb that she had succumbed to the latest fad. "I am practically in retirement, socially, while reading Gone with the Wind–which I had firmly intended not to read. Entertaining book, but I still feel it is rather a waste of time to be reading it at all, though I don't know that I would do anything more profitable with the evenings it has taken."
As Stafford approached middle age, she retained her willowy figure and social skills. In 1938, Whitcomb wrote that a mutual acquaintance ("Mr. B") had seen Stafford at a meeting in Kansas City and reported that "you resembled a 'beautiful wild flower.' Your conversation, he said, was sophisticated but your dress belied it."
That combination of intelligence and style carried into the workplace. Even when Stafford was photographed in her office piled with textbooks, surrounded by the tools of her trade - telephone, typewriter, and advance proofs of medical articles - she wore a strand of pearls.
- Women and Science at Science Service, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7091 - Science Service, Records, circa 1910-1963, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- For all you birders out there - Bowerbirds and their elaborate nests. [via Core77]
- Making collections accessible - The Collections Program Technicians at the National Museum of Natural History. (via Unearthed, NMNH]
- The term "Archive" in a digital context - Different meanings to different people. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- And the Award goes to . . . University of Southern California Digital Repository, who will manage and preserve a 320-terabyte collection of audiovisual materials created by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences over the last 50 years. [via InfoDocket]
- Whale graveyard mystery solved, it was the algae! [via Ocean Portal, NMNH]
- Digital movies and the difficulties in their preservation versus their film counterparts. [via Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, SIA]
- With hints of spring coming, it is not early to start thinking about what to plant in your garden this year. The Smithsonian's own Janet Draper offers some advice on what you could do for a 10 x 10 foot bit of land. [via Marcel LaFollette, SIA]
- Go behind the scenes at the Smithsonian-Gale Project. [via Unbound, SIL]
- As the cost of 3D printers continues to go down, their use will most definitely become more commonplace. Premiering at South by Southwest is Print the Legend, the first full length documentary about 3D printing. [via Core77]
How did a woman become a curator of Crustacea at the Smithsonian's National Museum in the 19th century? Historian Sally Kohlstedt wrote a ground-breaking article "In from the Periphery," in Signs in 1978 that identified the circuitous ways women entered science in those years. Since it was unlikely for women to be able to get Ph.D's in this line of work from prestigious universities, family connections, traditional female work roles, and volunteering were some of the ways women broke in to scientific careers. The Smithsonian's first full time female curator, Mary Jane Rathbun (1860-1943), used them all! The diminutive young lady from Buffalo, New York, lost her mother when she was only a year old and learned to make her way through life quite independently.
Mary Jane was not educated beyond high school, but had been interested in fossils since childhood. She first saw the ocean in 1881 when she accompanied her brother, Richard Rathbun, a biologist, to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and then to the Smithsonian's National Museum. For three years, she helped label, sort and record specimens, before being appointed a Smithsonian clerk. While Richard traveled frequently, Mary Jane took over the day‑to‑day duties of his office and set out to learn all there was to know about marine biology. She focused on the classification of decapod Crustacea, that is, shrimps, crabs and their near relatives, and soon amassed a large collection.
As her brother moved into Smithsonian administration, Mary Jane continued to work at the museum, largely unaided. She was appointed second assistant curator of marine invertebrates in 1894 and after a mere 28 years she advanced to assistant curator in charge of the division in 1907! Appointment to a professional position was no small feat for a woman in the 1890s; it would be two more years before the United States Geological Survey appointed its first woman scientist. The fact that her brother was now Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian probably helped her cause. As historian Margaret Rossiter has shown, in the 19th century civil service jobs were classified by sex, that is, when announcing a vacancy, the supervisor had to indicate whether a man or woman was wanted for the job. Thus, most professional jobs were not open to women unless they were specifically announced with the woman in mind.
Before the Natural History Museum opened in 1910, Mary Jane worked in the Castle, often needing to go to the basement to work with specimens. The 4' 6" scientist would open the door to the winding staircase to the dark basement and stomp her feet repeatedly to scare away the rats, and descend carrying large trays of specimens. She was rarely daunted; indeed, she was so devoted to her work that, during a flood, she commuted to work via a rowboat. She reportedly brought her lunch to work every day so as not to lose time for research, and by the end of her career, had written an impressive 166 articles and books.
Even though she was the Smithsonian's first paid fulltime woman scientist, in 1914, Rathbun resigned her hard‑won position so the salary could be given to her protégé, Waldo LaSalle Schmitt. She was named honorary curator and continued her research at the museum for another twenty‑five years, completing her monumental four volume series on the crabs of America. These volumes were even used by Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989) of Japan, a skilled collector and an avid and lifelong marine biologist, to identify his collections. In her last years, Mary Jane's memory began to fail her, but she still enjoyed working with her crabs. Schmitt would pick up his mentor in the morning, bring her to the museum and set a tray of unsorted crab specimens in front of her which she would happily work on all day. She'd return the next day and start work on the same tray again. The diminutive but determined carcinologist worked daily in the museum until five years before her death at the age of 82, leaving a well-curated collection, her extensive carcinological library, a bequest of $10,000 for further work on decapod Crustacea, as well as an impressive list of published contributions to science.
- A Brief History of the Invertebrate Zoology Department, by Dr. Fenner A. Chace Jr., National Museum of Natural History
- Richard Rathbun: The Smithsonian's Renaissance Man, by Amy Ballard, Unearthed blog, National Museum of Natural History
- Record Unit 7256 - Mary Jane Rathbun Papers, 1886, 1886-1938, 1886-1938 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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