The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Women's History Month
Every culture's cuisine has a tasty bite to whet the appetite. There is Chinese dim sum, Spanish tapas, Caribbean macarons créoles, Thai satay, and of course Japanese sushi. And it is the last one, and its link to a reserved and very private English marine botanist, that prompted this blog.
If you've ever eaten Japanese sushi, you are familiar with the dark green wrapper surrounding the rice-based filling. That papery bit is nori, made using a particular genus of algae, Porphyra. This reddish-purple algae, is found clinging to rocks in intertidal areas worldwide, and largely ignored. That is, except for Japan, China and South Korea, where its cultivation is a 1.4 billion dollar industry that grew out of the pioneering work of Kathleen Mary Drew Baker (1901-1957).
Although nori had been exploited for food since as early as 533 AD in China and Japan from about 1000 AD, harvests were erratic and subject to whims of nature. That is, until a Kathleen M. Drew (this is the name under which she published), teased out the complex life histories of these algae and made discoveries that later allowed the nori industry to develop and thrive.
Goran Michanek's excellent biographical sketch on Drew points out that, in 1949, she published a very brief note in the journal Nature titled, Concheolis-phase in the life history of Porphyra umbilicalis (L) [166:7 48-9]. In the note (approx. 100 words) , "she described how the spores of Porphyra umbillicalis if brought into contact with old shells will penetrate these and develop into characteristic growth identical with an algae known as Conchocelis rosea." This discovery about one stage in the life history of this species of Porphyra gave critical insight in to how to control conditions to efficiently cultivate and harvest nori.
So indebted is the nori industry to Drew, they have honored her with a memorial park in Uzuchi Sumiyoshi-hill of the Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan. And, every April there is a memorial ceremony where nori fishermen honor their, "Mother of the Sea." Drew's contribution to the success of the nori industry, however, is not her only legacy.
During Drew's brief professional career (only 33 years), she collected 2,949 herbarium specimens (later donated to the British Museum); authored numerous papers and monographs (including posthumous) – 24 of which were published in the last four years of her life; and, was a founding member and first chairman of the British Phycological Society.
Sadly, aside from her professional and practical achievements, we know very little about Kathleen M. Drew the woman. In the final years of her life, she burned all her personal and professional papers. Only a few family photograph albums escaped.
Perhaps through archives that do survive – her letters to colleagues, family and friends; records from her school and university days; and recollections that may appear in oral histories - we may come to know her better.
- Kathleen M. Drew Baker (1901-1957) by Goran Michanek. "Prominent Phycologists of the 20th Century." Garbary, David J. and Michael J, Wynne, eds. Lancet Pres Ltd. (Nova Scotia) 1996.
- Kathleen M. Drew D.Sc. (Mrs. H. Wright Baker) 1901-1957. British Phycological Bulletin, 1:6, iv-12 - Collected tributes following her death
- Accession 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
One of the things I love about working at the Smithsonian Institution Archives is that I feel like I learn something new every day. For instance, in 1984, the first game in a series called King’s Quest made its debut on the computer gaming scene. It was such a success that Sierra On-Line went on to produce seven more games in the series. King’s Quest was not only one of the best selling franchises for Sierra On-Line, but it helped revolutionize the gaming world. If you are a gamer of any type, you probably already knew all of this, but did you know that the person responsible for developing this entire series is a woman? I didn’t either until I digitized the videos from Record Unit 9533 (Mini and Microcomputers).
Roberta Williams was born on February 16, 1953 in Simi Valley, California. In 1972, she married her high school love, Ken Williams, and in 1979 they co-founded the company On-Line Systems, which later became Sierra On-Line. The first video game Roberta wrote, Mystery House, was released one year later in 1980. At the time, all of the existing computer games were text only with no graphic component such as Colossal Cave Adventure which was released in the late 1970s. Williams, a stay-at-home mom who considered herself a writer and not a programmer or even a gamer, wrote up the plot line for Mystery House and created a map of the different rooms in the game in order to determine the graphics necessary for the game. Ken, who is the programmer in the family, took Roberta’s storyline and graphics and coded them to create the game. Ken even provided Roberta with a tablet that was hooked up to the computer so she could include her own handwriting on some of the textual elements. Later that same year, On-Line Systems released another game designed by Roberta Williams called Wizard and the Princess, which became the first computer game with color graphics, and ended up being a prequel to King’s Quest in terms of storyline.
Roberta Williams continued to design video games for Sierra On-Line until her retirement in 1999. Although creating computer games is a thing of the past for this revolutionary woman, the gaming world will forever be grateful for her contributions to this male dominated field.
- Yes, The Library of Congress Has Video Games: An Interview with David Gibson, The Signal: Digital Preservation blog, Library of Congress
- The Art of Video Games traveling exhibition, Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Record Unit 9533 - Minicomputers and Microcomputers Videohistory Collection, 1987, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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