The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Diminutive but Determined: Mary Jane Rathbun
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