The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Collections in Focus
With a hint of spring finally in the air, my thoughts turn to the sights, sounds and smells of trees in bloom and birds nesting. I look forward to a beautiful day in May when I can walk through a nearby nature preserve and see delicate blossoms hiding among the leaf litter. These wild flowers have not been bred to last in a vase; they appear and disappear quickly, attracting insect pollinators and fading away when that task is done. What does it take to paint a wild flower that blooms for a single day in a deep forest? For Mary Morris Vaux (1860-1940), a young Quaker woman who accompanied her family fossil hunting in the Rockies most summers, you pull out your paint box to sketch and paint with water colors for 17 hours to capture the shape, movement, and colors of the delicate petals and leaves. Back at camp, comfortably ensconced on a tree stump, she would produce a more final version. She also became quite skilled at photographing them as reference for her art work.
Mary Morris Vaux was born into a well-to-do Quaker family in Philadelphia and attended the Friends School. She planned to enroll in Bryn Mawr College, but when her mother died, she stayed home to care for her father and brothers, as was expected of 19th century young women. The family spent vacations in Canadian Rockies, so her father could pursue his amateur interest in geology. Mary brought her sketching pads and watercolors so she could capture the beautiful wild flowers she found along the trails. Botany and drawing were considered very appropriate avocations for educated young women, although most sat in their gardens rather than scale peaks and cross glaciers. Mary was far more adventurous – in 1913, she climbed Mount Robson, the highest peak in the British Columbia Rockies. Mount Mary Vaux, some 10,881 feet high, was named in her honor. Despite those adventures, her life was fairly circumscribed, centered around family and church.
That same year as she scaled Mount Robson, she embarked upon quite a different adventure. She told her father she planned to marry a paleontologist they had met in the Rockies. Her father rejected the notion summarily and refused to attend the wedding. He was very fond of his 53 year old unmarried daughter, who had cared for him lovingly since her mother died. He also did not much care for the fellow she intended to marry – Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850-1927) paleontologist and Secretary of the Smithsonian. He regarded Walcott as something of a gold-digger and he was not a Quaker. At 64 years, Walcott had been widowed twice and had four children. Walcott's family was no happier about the wedding. His daughter Helen had cared for her father and brothers after her mother died and did not want an interloper taking her place.
Despite the negative response of their families, Mary and Charles married and shared many happy years, based on their mutual love of natural history exploration. Mary Walcott quickly became part of the Smithsonian family and the Quaker community in Washington. In the 1920s, when her husband launched a fund-raising campaign, Mary Walcott found a way to contribute. She published a five volume set of her drawings of North American wild flowers, between 1925 and 1928, with proceeds going to the Smithsonian's endowment. Her beautiful and accurate drawings have been displayed in exhibits and republished several times since then. In 2014, the Smithsonian Institution Press with Smithsonian Institution Libraries reprinted a selection of them in a single volume. It is nice to know that I can browse through them in the chill of winter and look forward to that sunny spring day when they will reappear at a pond's edge or in a mountain glen.
- Mary Vaux Walcott, Artist, Smithsonian American Art Museum artist database
- Charles Doolittle Walcott, Smithsonian Secretary, Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Mary M. Vaux, a picture journal, The Palaeontological Society and Royal Museum of Ontario
- Accession 92-006 - Mary Vaux Walcott, North American Wildflowers Prints, 1925, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Science Service's first director E. E. Slosson ardently supported the rights of women, in the home and workplace, as well as at the ballot box. Slosson's egalitarian attitudes and reputation for frankness were so well known that even leaders in the woman's movement sought his advice.
Emma P. Huth, director of the Bureau of Vocational Information, for example, told Slosson that the Bureau's report Women and Chemistry must convey "no more optimism with reference to women in the field than the facts support." "Is there or will there be place for more" women in chemistry, she asked, and "do the prospects for women justify the long training required of them." (Emma P. Huth to E. E. Slosson, February 9, 1922, Record Unit 7091, Box 15, Folder 2). Slosson and Huth knew that young women faced many obstacles in training for the sciences, but finding employment in a laboratory could be difficult, especially after marriage.
One way in which Slosson made a difference during the 1920s was by recruiting science-trained women to be Science Service writers, either on the permanent staff or as "stringers," contributors paid by the word. Marjorie McDill Breit, for example, had worked on the staff before her marriage in 1927 to physicist Gregory Breit, and she continued to contribute articles under her maiden name over the next decade. Although Marjorie's husband was supportive, not every scientist approved of popularizing science through the newspapers. By using a pen name, a wife could "protect" a husband from potential criticism from intolerant colleagues.
In October 1921, when Slosson sent the manuscript "What Is Known about Cancer" to the United Features Syndicate, he explained that "Edith E. Taussig is the maiden name and pen name of Mrs. Spaeth, wife of one of the leading zoologists of the country, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, but she does not want her married name of Spaeth to be used in connection with her writing."
Edith Eleanor Taussig (1888-1968), Wellesley College Class of 1910, had married Reynold Albrecht Spaeth (1886-1925) in 1913, as he was completing a graduate fellowship in zoology at Harvard and she was engaged in graduate study at Radcliffe. For the next five years, the Spaeths lived the peripatetic life typical of rising young scientists, as he traveled in Europe, taught at Clark College and Yale University, and spent time at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. In 1918, Reynold Spaeth joined the faculty of the School of Hygiene and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and the couple settled in Baltimore.
Slosson had begun professional interactions with Edith soon after the establishment of Science Service. Within a few months she was submitting manuscripts, suggesting articles on such topics as beriberi, pellagra, and rickets research, seeking feedback on her writing style, asking when checks would arrive, and quibbling over how little money they paid.
In his letters, Slosson pled for patience and accommodation. The organization's goal was the widest possible syndication for science (that is, to reach a large audience) but that required a more popular style and brought in lower revenue per piece. Edith wondered whether Woman’s Home Companion might "bite" on the next manuscript, and was disappointed when only a few newspapers picked up her cancer story. Slosson responded by challenging her to write something "sufficiently brilliant" to captivate the attention of The Century. "It is more important that the subject should be written up strikingly than that it should be novel in the scientific sense," he advised. And "if an item is connected with some current event or topic of conversation," it is more apt to be accepted: "You will have to use your prophetic power and womanly intuition in such cases."
Edith confessed to being "floored" by the call to "brilliancy" but she kept at the effort, as Slosson patiently schooled her ("You put too much meat into your preparations. Remember that a housewife's skill is based on her ability to make a tasty dish out of a scrap of left-over.") Even when she continued to challenge the payment amounts, he remained polite and supportive. They tried her out for a few weeks on the permanent staff but, Slosson later explained, she could never quite adapt to the necessary journalistic approach and she remained a regular external contributor.
Unfortunately, within a few years, Edith's life took a tragic turn. Reynold and the family had moved to Siam, where he was involved in Rockefeller Foundation research at the University of Bangkok Medical School. In 1925, Reynold died suddenly at the age of 38.
Slosson, like many other friends in the United States, reached out to Edith and her two small children, and attempted to negotiate some way she might find employment in science journalism. Reynold's brother Sigmund was supportive of this offer ("My brother's death was a sacrifice to science, and there would be some consolation in the thought that his widow could be useful in the same cause"). Slosson agreed that she was "putting up a plucky fight and should have all possible encouragement and help in this emergency," and offered several possibilities, including writing a children's book for a series he was editing. He admired her ability to be frank and to take honest reactions with grace. Despite his offer of a "living wage" on the staff and all the training she might need, however, he told her "it would be a waste of time and an annoyance to us both" if she could not adapt to "the requirements of the newspapers we serve."
Edith Taussig Spaeth eventually chose a different path, finding work as a medical librarian. But she nevertheless expressed her gratitude for Slosson's honest advice. False optimism, they both recognized, would never serve any woman well in the struggle for equality in the workplace.
- Science Service Records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives