The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Women's History Month
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
The first time I was introduced to Mary Agnes Chase was in her 1922 letters, and she was boarding a ship to Europe. This was post-World War I, and she was heading to Vienna, Austria to conduct work for the Unites States National Herbarium. My first impression was that she was rather blunt, and not afraid of speaking her mind. She is equally taken aback by the mostly German crew, the unabashed drinking on board the American ship, and the women smoking. Her blunt observations in her correspondence throughout the 1920s and 1930s show a woman who was disgusted with the way things were, and felt that some things needed to be changed.
Born in Illinois in 1869, Mary Agnes Chase was raised in Chicago where in 1888 she married William Ingraham Chase. Sadly William died from tuberculosis within the first year of their marriage. Mary started working for the United States Department of Agriculture in 1903, and over the years worked her way up from botanist illustrator to senior botanist. For most of her career, Chase worked closely with Albert Spear Hitchcock building the collection of grasses for the United States National Museum (now National Museum of Natural History). This work often required her to travel abroad, and she spent a fair amount of time in Europe and Brazil.
She had a keen eye that brought the countries she visited to light, both culturally and politically. Reading her letters is as much a history lesson as it is a botany lesson. She spent a great deal of time describing her daily routine, and not always in a flattering way. She was disappointed with the European train system, and her choice of words in 1922 is almost verbatim with what she says about it in 1935 in regards to how terrible she thought the porters were. Clearly the system had not improved enough to meet Mary's standards. She also had a bit of difficulty with relaxing and "letting her hair down." For example in 1935, she was upset that Easter was a week long holiday in France, and that she was not allowed to have a personal key to the museum.
Her letters from Brazil are lighter, and while she still was rather annoyed when distracted from her work, it seems there is a marked difference. In one instance she complains about her ankle holding her up having sprained it in the field, but her complaints have a laughter about them as if she is chiding herself for getting into that situation more than being completely incensed about it. I got the impression that it was the people of Brazil that warmed her up. Mary seemed to bond with them far more that she did with the Europeans. Some part of it could be attributed to post war prejudices, but I also get the impression that her work in Brazil suited her more. In Brazil she was doing field work on American grasses, her specialty, and she seemed to thrive in this environment.
From her letters you get a good sense of the woman who championed the causes of the working classes and suffragettes. But what struck me the most are the parts of Mary's life that we don't know about. Most of what we know conclusively about her started after Mary was well into middle age. Where is the young Mary Agnes Chase? Who was this woman other than a world class botanist? There are a few details in her letters about grandchildren, sisters, and family; however most of her private life is shrouded in mystery, and if you do research on her, you find few answers. How did Mary juggle her private and professional lives? Did she hand a child or children perhaps off to a sibling while she traipsed around the world in search of grasses the way so many male scientists did in her day? Did she promise to write to them when there was a spare moment?
The biographies that mention her marriage never speak of children. However, in a letter from July 5, 1935, Mary gushes over the birth of a new granddaughter. She was in a hotel room with Bob, apparently her grandson, who was visiting her in Paris, and older brother of the new granddaughter. She goes on to say how her child begged her to come to Geneva to see her new grandbaby. She goes on in an August letter to inform Hitchcock that she is extending her stay to go to Geneva to see the new baby. We now know that she has two grandchildren, but what about her children? Why is there so little discussion of them? Perhaps one day someone will discover a scrap of paper or a photograph of a young Mary Agnes Chase holding the hand of a small child. Her child. Until then we can only speculate.
- Formidable: Women in Science, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- New Flickr Commons Set: Mary Agnes Chase Field Books, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 229: United States National Museum Division of Grasses, Records, 1884, 1888, 1899-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Cue the music! We invite you to our third "She Blinded Me with Science" Women in Science Wikipdia Edit-a-thon III.
As was the case for the last two edit-a-thons, you can participate both in-person at the Archives, and on-line by joining us in a Google Hangout and etherpad (links to come on the event page linked above.) By participating, you will receive a tour of the Archives, a talk on popular media's role in the history of women in science, an introduction for beginners on editing in Wikipedia, coffee & lunch (if you join us in-person,) and the satisfaction of writing a female scientist into digital history.
In years past, we have focused on women in the history of science which has resulted in the creation of more than 50 new articles on groundbreaking geologists, anthropologists, botanists and more. Let's take a look at some of these women:
Ursula B. Marvin, planetary geologist from the Harvard-Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory, won several awards for her research (1997 Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Science and Engineering, 1986 History of Geology Award from the Geological Society of America, and the 2005 Sue Tyler Friedman Medal), and had an Antarctic mountain named after her.
Ornithologist Roxie Laybourne basically founded the field of forensic ornithology. Laybourne was very interested in aeronautics and even took an aeronautics correspondence course after not being able to attend aviation school because she was female. She used the Smithsonian's vast bird collection and scanning electron microscopy to identify birds involved in plane crashes. She helped to improve air travel safety working in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.
For this year, we have added 35 more female scientists to our to-do list. Some of them were uncovered by our digital volunteers while transcribing scientific field books in the Smithsonian's Transcription Center. The list also contains many current female scientists at the Smithsonian who are working on everything from the conservation of wild canids to high-energy astrophysics. Join us in writing these women into digital history.
- Sign up for the "She Blinded Me with Science III," Women in Science Wikipedia Edit-a-thon III, Friday, March 27.
- Roxie Collie Laybourne: Remembering a Groundbreaker, Bigger Picture Blog
- Documenting a Geologist's Adventures, Bigger Picture Blog
- Women in Science Wednesdays, Bigger Picture Blog
- Science Service Records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
My laptop's dictionary illustrates the word "idiosyncrasy" with colorful examples, attributing distinctive modes of behavior to regal figures (a queen who imperiously demands a certain food) or referencing odd places that demand unorthodox responses (how major baseball sluggers exploit the "Green Monster" at Fenway Park). The origins of the word provoke distinctly idiosyncratic daydreams. In Greek, idiosunkrasia referred to one's own private mixture (idios + sun + krasis), to the modes of thought or behavior unique to an individual.
The Science Service collections are, without question, idiosyncratic, but their foibles and oddities are collective as well as individualistic. The mixture unites thousands of different correspondents and ways of seeing the world – all ages, all sorts of motivations, all walks of life.
By the mid-1930s Science Service had become ever more engaged in educational activities directed at young people. That interest stimulated the organization's Science Clubs of America, "Things of Science" projects, and involvement in the Science Talent Search competition. Long before such formal activities, however, students had sought help by writing letters, just as today's students email Smithsonian Institution archivists, historians, and curators.
In 1935, a high school senior Viola Anderson wrote this letter to Science Service:
52 Anderson Avenue
Staten Island, New York
April 13, 1935
For my Senior Speech in High School, I have to select a topic which interests me. I have always been curious about the subject of idiosyncrasies.
Would it be possible to get any information on idiosyncrasies? Unfortunately, I have been unable to secure material, and the extent of my knowledge is my observations. I would appreciate any information you could possibly give me.
As we enter Women's History Month, it would be nice to imagine that Viola Anderson grew up to be a scientist. Such an inquiring mind befits a budding researcher. The letter she sent to Science Service in 1935 is well-written. Perhaps she became an author, a dramatist, a poet, a philosopher. Do you recognize the little girl who knew that observations alone would not suffice and asked for more information?
- Science Service Records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
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