At the Archives, we often run across images that have minimal information associated with them. Sometimes it’s a number or a name (usually incomplete) or a year. It is rare to find a beautifully complete annotation telling us where and when the picture was taken, by whom, the names of the people pictured, the occasion, etc. So, to make the image most useful to researchers, we have to do our best to solve the mysteries we face using the clues that are right in front of us.
The collection where an image is found can tell us a lot (sometimes not) about why it’s there. For instance, the morgue files for Science Service contain past articles, press releases, and other materials produced by them. The file also includes supplemental photographs of scientists. And we know that many of the portraits in Science Service records were taken by Julian Scott.
These usually date from the 1910s and 1920s, an attribution that’s usually backed-up by the clothing and hairstyles depicted and Scott’s style in posing his subjects—in the lab, casual and relaxed. Once you’ve seen a lot of them, you recognize Scott as a likely suspect for the photographer. Sometimes there are identification numbers that we can compare with published lists. Science Service sold individual images and packets of portraits grouped by discipline— “Chemists ! – collect ‘em, trade em’”. Numbers and the list help most of the time, but not always. Take the case of “Miss W. Dennis.”
Consider three distinct portraits—minimally annotated—two were taken at the same sitting and one was taken years earlier than the other two—dress, hair, and physical build of the Miss Dennis give these clues. The two taken together have numbers on the back (159 & 159A, yes!), the other one doesn’t , but all have a name, and here’s the problem—two different spellings: Denis and Dennis. OK, not a major problem, but which one is correct?
The Science Service numerical list says, “Dennis, (Miss) W., Biology, Tulane University.” Perfect, just Google and go, right? Nope. Hmmmm. Using other strategies (spelling variations, university connections, and scientific discipline) identified, Miss Willey Glover DeNis, (1879-1929), Biochemist, Tulane University. She is truly interesting (Queen of Mardi Gras, 1902) and worthy of a “getting it right,” so others can find her easily and learn more about her (read more about her here). Previously, there had only been one known portrait of Miss DeNis and these three images offer something new.
The most interesting and important aspect of this search, however, was not finding Willey DeNis but learning that the misspelling of her name on the back of our photograph wasn’t a one-off, but it was repeated on other copies of these images and on their published list! The simple addition or subtraction of an “N” made all the difference.
This research, and new facts it brought to light, will help us in our ongoing process to update and correct our captions and catalogue entries.