The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Women's History Month
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
Happy Women’s History Month! We are delighted that this is our sixth year, even though we’ve been celebrating throughout the year, every week with our Women in Science Wednesday series. We have several activities planned this year. With this post, we are launching a set of 70 new images from the Science Service, a science news organization. Included this year are some old and new faces; Rosalind Wulzen a physiologist who discovered a factor that protects the joints of mammals from calcification, Maud Wrinch a mathematician known for her work on the protein structure, and Hazel Katherine Stiebeling (below) a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutritionist who helped to develop the daily allowance standards and the first woman to receive the Distinguished Service Medal given to federal employees. The entire collection can be viewed here and in the slideshow below.
Throughout the month, our archivists and historians will write in depth posts about some of the women in our collection, so please follow along. Finally, on March 18th, we will host a Wikipedia edit-a-thon with the goal of better representation for women scientists on Wikipedia. Join us remotely or in person as we complete this to-do list. A big thank-you to Marcel LaFollette who conducted the research to write captions for the women and men of the Science Service collection, and to all our staff and YOU who help to make these women better known.
- It’s that wondrous time of year again in D.C., the cherry blossoms are popping! (via Smithsonian Retina blog)
- Continuing the theme of Groundbreakers this Women’s History Month, The National Museum of American History uncovered this story about a Latina woman, Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who disguised herself as a man in order to fight in the Civil War. (via O Say Can You See)
- The Library of Congress updated its Chronicling America website with 800,000 digitized, historic newspapers from Indiana, North Dakota, Arizone, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Texas. (via Infodocket)
- Google Art Project just added the first artworks from China; 50 pieces from the Hunan Provincial Museum in central China. (via Infodocket)
- Ever wondered what happens when you drop your library box into the returns box? Meet the Robo-librarian from Seattle. (via Infodocket)
Context matters. Tell us the "who, when, where, and why" of a photograph and suddenly (like an unexpected inheritance) the image acquires abundant meaning and intellectual capital.
In 2012, the Flickr community helped the Smithsonian Institution Archives establish such context for a previously unidentified image of Norwegian biologist Kristine Elisabeth Heuch Bonnevie (1872-1948). Once we knew the "who," then we could easily add the "when, where, and why."
In 1911, Bonnevie had been elected as the first female member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, an event so momentous that it was praised in the New York Times as a "triumph" and "another advance for women." The following year, Bonnevie became the first woman to be appointed as a university professor in Norway and in 1916 was made director of the newly established Institute for Human Heredity in Oslo.
Ida H. Stamhuis and Arve Monsen have argued that supportive colleagues played a role in Bonnevie’s success. At a crucial venture, the historians note, Bonnevie's supervisor even dared to confront "the woman issue" directly. In the conclusion to a recommendation letter, he declared: "That the suggested applicant is a woman should not be an obstacle to her employment. Rather, it seems to me, the fact that it is still far more difficult for women than for men to reach an independent position in society, in itself urges us to make this choice."
By the 1920s, Bonnevie had become active in international science and politics. In 1922, she served as an organizer (one of a few women in that role) of the Second International Congress of Eugenics and, that same year, became (along with physicists Marie Curie and Albert Einstein) an organizing member of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, part of a League of Nations effort to encourage collaboration in the sciences and humanities. She began regular visits to the United States to lecture to university and public audiences. During one such trip, she spent a few days at Vassar College, telling a reporter for the Vassar Miscellany News (October 26, 1932) that the worldwide Depression had increased the importance of the League of Nations effort: "in this time of impassable economic barriers there [is] more need than ever for cultural understanding between nations."
Such sensitivity to political and social contexts distinguished Bonnevie's life and career. After World War II, she was honored for organizing food deliveries to the Norwegian underground during the Nazi occupation. And the prestigious Kristine Bonnevie Lectures in Evolutionary Biology pay tribute every September to her worldwide scientific legacy.
The photograph of Bonnevie in the Smithsonian Institution Archives had no accompanying material and its obverse inscription was difficult to decipher. Now, however, we know that this was one of several photographs of scientists taken by journalist Watson Davis in Geneva, Switzerland, in July 1926, when he covered a meeting of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation.
At the Geneva meeting, Davis and biologist Vernon Kellogg had attempted to persuade Bonnevie's committee to support establishment of a European "Science Service" modeled on the successful American organization. Only "by making the new results of the intellectual part of the world part of the general thought-stream of a large part of mankind," Davis wrote, can "civilization be raised and maintained consistently upon a higher spiritual and intellectual level." The smiling, sprightly scientist that Davis photographed that summer, in fact, exemplified just such ideals throughout her career.
- National Library of Norway flickr photostream, includes images of Kristine Elisabeth Heuch Bonnevie
- Record Unit 7091 - Science Service, Records, circa 1910-1963, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In 1931, Roxie Collie listed airplanes, tennis racquets, and windy days as interests under her name in her yearbook from Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. The eldest in a family of 15 children, her hobbies included the outdoors, animals, engines, and model airplanes, which were considered improper for a female during that time. In college she had the opportunity to play basketball and participate in track, as well as being the first to wear blue jeans at the all-girls college. She also enjoyed mowing the college’s courtyard in her coveralls. She received her B.A. from Meredith in 1932, and her M.S. in plant ecology from the George Washington University in 1951.
That pioneering spirit led Roxie Collie Laybourne to go on to create the important field of forensic ornithology, which identifies dead birds from feather samples or fragments which can be quite small. Some aircraft accidents have been caused by bird strikes (collision between birds and aircraft) and forensic ornithology has improved safety through the use of bird data, by making modifications to flight plans and creating programs to scare away birds at some airports.
Laybourne worked on aircraft engines during college and took an aeronautics correspondence course, after not being able to attend aviation school because she was female. She even got into trouble with her college after going to the airport to see Amelia Earhart. After graduating she worked at the National Fisheries Laboratory in Beaufort, N.C., and the North Carolina State Museum before coming to the Smithsonian in 1944 in the Division of Birds as a museum aide for a short-term position. Nevertheless, she stayed on at the Smithsonian with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Bird and Mammal Laboratory, and founded the forensic ornithology program in the 1960s.
Her method was to identify species of birds from feathers by using light and scanning electron microscopy, in conjunction with studying the substructure of the wings. The feather identification program came about after Laybourne assisted in the investigation of a fatal crash at Logan Airport in Boston in 1960 and starlings were determined to be the cause. Laybourne then started using the Smithsonian’s collection of preserved bird specimens for feather study to identify species that were involved in bird strikes.
Her techniques and tools are still used today and even have aided criminal investigations. One case Laybourne assisted with was a homicide involving a woman who shot her husband in his sleep and some of the feathers from the pillow went in with the bullet. Her work also aided various agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the FBI, and the U.S. military.
Known as the “Feather Lady, ” she also taught bird-skinning courses to many budding ornithologists.
In a 2001 oral history interview with Smithsonian Historian Pamela Henson, Laybourne talked about mental challenges of the work and said it was not meant for everyone. She considered the field to still be developing. Laybourne retired in 1988 but still performed feather identifications as a Smithsonian Research Associate until her death in 2003 at age 92. The Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian continues this important work.
Audio clips from Roxie C. S. Laybourne Interviews, 2001, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9610.
Roxie Laybourne talking about the importance of sharing knowledge.
Roxie Laybourne talking about her approach to life.
Roxie Laybourne talking about working at the Smithsonian Institution.
- Record Unit 9610, Roxie C. S. Laybourne Interviews, 2001, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 04-086, National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds, Curatorial Records, 1972-2000, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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