Marion Schmidt Escallon (1912-2003) and unidentified man, 1937, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 90-105 Science Service Records, Image no. SIA2009-2746

Science Service, Up Close: Women in Geology and Paleontology

To celebrate Women’s History Month, here are two examples of 20th-century women who applied their education and expertise in geology and paleontology outside traditional university career paths.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, here are two examples of 20th-century women who applied their education and expertise in geology and paleontology outside traditional university career paths.

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan in 1933, Chicago native Marion Schmidt Escallon (1912–2003) was the first woman employed in the United States as a petroleum exploration geologist. In 1936, even the university’s alumni news page called her job as assistant geologist for Sinclair Oil Company “unusual for a woman.” The following year, she joined the Texaco Oil Company and ran Texaco’s office in Colombia during the late 1930s. She earned a private pilot license in 1941 and married Carlos Escallon, and they lived in Panama, Cuba, and Colombia until 1949. Marion eventually returned to New York to raise her two sons, and resumed her career with Texaco in 1955.

left to right: Unidentified man and Marion Schmidt Escallon (1912-2003)

For Iowa native Mildred Adams Fenton (1899-1995), paleontology and geology reflected life-long passions expressed through research and writing. Mildred Adams was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa when she met and then married fellow geology student Carroll Lane Fenton (1900–1969), beginning a scientific and publishing partnership that lasted almost half a century. Iowa historian Cheryl Mullenbach says that the newlyweds initially used the home of Mildred’s parents as “a central base of operations” for their field trips in a specially-equipped car-camper. They celebrated their first anniversary with a joint publication in the Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science. Mildred was also listed as co-author on their first books—The Stratigraphy and Fauna of the Hackberry Stage of the Upper Devonian (Macmillan, 1924) and Records of Evolution (a “Little Blue Book” edition published by E. Haldeman-Julius in 1925)—and as co-author on their many scientific journal articles.

Mildred Adams Fenton (1899-1995), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 90-105 [SIA2008-0567].

After Carroll earned a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1926, they moved to New York, where he taught at University of Buffalo until 1931. Like many young scientists, however, the Fentons struggled to make a living in academe during the Great Depression. They began supplementing their incomes by writing science books for popular audiences, often based on their original field research and illustrated with Mildred’s photographs, although initially without Mildred listed as co-author.

Life could be difficult even for successful authors. In a June 24, 1942, letter to a Science Service editor, Carroll lamented the challenges of free-lance publishing: “The biology [book] that was to have been published by Macmillan has been rewritten twice to meet changing editorial requirements, and now is shelved for the duration [of the war]. Mildred and I have a book on mountains for kids in press with Doubleday, and I am finishing one of geology for John Day.” Mildred’s name appeared as co-author on Mountains (1942) and on all their subsequent books, including The Land We Live On (1944), The Story of the Great Geologists (1946), The Rock Book (1950), Our Changing Weather (1954), The Fossil Book (1958), Worlds in the Sky (1963), and Prehistoric Zoo (1961). Mildred continued to publish after Carroll’s death and a significant proportion of their books remain in print, into multiple revised editions, preserving an enduring record of Mildred’s noteworthy contributions to the popularization of science.

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