A Quirk, a Chase and the Power of a Crowd

Throughout March, we will be celebrating Women's History Month with photos in the Flickr Commons and a series of blog posts about women from the Archives' collections.

Agnes J. Quirk, 1932, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 90-105 [SIA2009-1767].  Just recently have I come to deeper appreciate of the importance of Women's History Month. As an information technology archivist and digital services manager, my work centers around preserving historic born digital records, using digitization techniques to help preserve analog holdings, and taking advantage of the Internet to connect researchers and the public to our unique collections. For the past year that's included working with people all over the world over the Internet through crowd-sourcing transcriptions and Wikipedia articles. 

My responsibilities didn't expose me to how turn of the 20th century attitudes toward women in the sciences continues to affect us today. Agnes J. Quirk was my wake up call.

In 2012, I participated in the Archives' first Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, aptly themed "She Blinded Me With Science" (join us for our second Women in Science edit-a-thon March 18th.) To be honest, I selected Agnes because of her last name and the fact that I knew nothing about her work. In 1901, Agnes J. Quirk worked in the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Laboratory of Plant Pathology as lab assistant to pathologist-in-charge Erwin Frink Smith. By 1928, she was heading the laboratory and continued to do so for two more decades. She became known for her work on crown gall disease. Fifty years after starting at the USDA, she applied for and was granted US Patent No. 2609322 Production of Penicillin Mold and Jelly

Thankfully, with the guidance of more experienced Wikipedians at that Edit-a-thon and later on, I'm pleased to say that Agnes now has a Wikipedia article. People starting their research with this online resource can find something about her work as a botanist and find other resources if they want to delve further.

Mary Agnes Chase Collecting Plants, Brazil  That's my Quirk. But the Chase?

Mary Agnes Chase (1869-1963) is another botanist whose personal papers are part of the Archives' collections. She came to my attention through the Archives' and the National Museum of Natural History joint Field Book Project. Chase was a bit more controversial for her time because she was also an active suffragette. While working as a botanist for the USDA, she was jailed for participating in one of the Washington, DC protests. This was deemed unseemly behavior for a federal employee and almost resulted in her dismissal. At another point, she was excluded from an expedition to Panama purportedly because she would be a distraction to the male scientists. All this, despite her field work in many parts of North and Central America.

The Field Book Project  brought my attention to Chase. The goal of the Project was to make thousands of previously uncataloged scientific field books and journals discoverable online. Finding useful primary sources on the resulting the Field Book Registry quickly prompted scientists and other scholars to contact us with the very natural question of "Can I see them - online? I'm doing research and can't travel to Washington, DC." The answer is increasingly yes as we continue to digitize these field books.

Most of these field books are handwritten, making it difficult to bring digital analysis and data mining techniques to bear on these materials. So we've turned to the "crowd" on the Internet to help us transcribe these materials to remove this obstacle to e-science research. We've been surprised by the response from people all over the world to this "call to arms" on the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Launched just eight months ago, over 3,000 people from 50 different countries around the world are transcribing the materials we've placed there.  23 of 33 projects from the Archives have been completely transcribed and reviewed by these digital volunteers.

Mary Agnes Chase's photography of her field studies were among the first field books digitized and posted to the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Last week, we launched another Chase album project. At the current rate, perhaps with your help, this album might be fully transcribed before March is over.

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