The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
A Pioneer Mammalogist: Viola Shelly Schantz
Recently, I was given a small amount of documents to scan which belonged to a Ms. Viola Schantz. The first folder contained a series of letters congratulating Ms. Schantz on her retirement from the Fish & Wildlife Service. First deduction: this lady was a well-liked coworker who had worked there for many years. The next folder had a series of photographs of Ms. Schantz. One was of her receiving an award upon her retirement from the Secretary of the Interior. Second deduction: this lady was pretty important, and also vaguely reminds me of old pictures of my grandmother. Thus commenced a brief search on the Internet to see if we we're related somewhere down the line. We're not.
Yet upon further research, I've discovered several things about this remarkable woman. Viola Shelly Schantz certainly had a long and extremely productive career, serving in different prestigious positions simultaneously throughout a period of forty-three years. Serving as a Biological Aide, Biologist, and Systematic Zoologist with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, as curator of the North American Mammal Collection and treasurer of the American Society of Mammalogists, Viola Schantz was one of the premier mammalogists of her day.
Oh, and she started all this in 1918.
At this time there was little precedence for a lady biologist, though there were several notable exceptions that Schantz herself paid homage to in various articles she wrote for the Journal of Mammalogy. Generally, women who entered the scientific field during the early part of the 20th century were the wives of other scientists, but Viola Schantz was an exception. She blazed her own path, and a number of firsts for women in her field belong to her. She was one of a small group of women to be founding members of the American Society of Mammalogists, and was the longest serving Officer of that society as treasurer. She also co-authored an extensive index of the Journal of Mammalogy; a task that I imagine was no easy assignment. Obviously, she was quite brilliant. I'm no biologist, but after reading her articles that were published in the Journal of Mammalogy, I can say with relative certainty that she really knew what she was doing. Her articles are extremely detailed and observant, and cover a variety of topics, from a newly discovered sub-species of badger to various unusual specimens that crossed her path at the U.S. Biological Survey. Mostly they seem to cover badgers; seriously, if you've ever had the inclination to read up on the various subspecies of American badgers and memorize every single detail about their physical characteristics, her articles are a great place to start. The details of her observations are fascinating. Schantz describes the various colors and shapes of these specimens to the point where one could picture the animal vividly without knowing anything else about the creature!
Among the photographs I scanned in Ms. Schantz's collection here at the Archives, there was one that stood out. It's a photo of Viola standing in front of an open storage drawer laden with mammal pelts. She's holding up one of the specimens for examination. The photograph says a lot about what Viola did from day to day, observing and studying these mammal specimens to learn more about how they lived their lives.
So, during Women's History Month, it's important to step back and remember all of the lovely ladies who came before us and strove to forge a career for themselves. More often than not, we let the fact that these women were the first women in their fields overshadow the remarkable work they did. I think Ms. Schantz might have thought this as well when she wrote articles about the women of science that had been her predecessors. She discusses the obstacles they had to overcome, yes, but she focuses on the work they accomplished. Mrs. M. A. Maxwell, for instance, who personally collected an extensive array of animals from Colorado for a huge exhibit (over a hundred animals and about four hundred birds, no small feat). Or Mrs. A. G. Wallihan, who had, in Schantz's words, "a heart alive to all the beauties of nature," and poured that heart into her wildlife photography. Schantz herself certainly had a heart alive as well. A heart alive for the mammals she so tirelessly worked to preserve. Particularly badgers.
- Dawn M. Kaufman, Donald W. Kaufman and Glennis A. Kaufman, "Women in the Early Years of the American Society of Mammalogists (1919-1949)," Journal of Mammalogy , Vol. 77, No. 3 (Aug., 1996), pp. 642-654.
- Viola S. Shanz, "A New Badger from Wisconsin," Journal of Mammalogy , Vol. 26, No. 4 (Nov., 1945), p. 431.
- Record Unit 7288 - Viola Shelly Shantz Collection, 1961-1962 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives