Determined Rathbun Woman Was World-Famous Scientist

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  • This article is a biography of Mary Jane Rathbun, a crab researcher hired in 1887 as a copyist in the Division of Marine Invertebrates at the Smithsonian Institution's United States National Museum who, during the course of her long career, became recognized as the dean of American carcinologists. Born in Buffalo, New York in 1860, Rathbun graduated from high school with no job prospects, but was taken on as a volunteer where her older brother Richard worked for the United States Fish Commission at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. There she became involved with the study of crabs and made it her lifetime work. Rathbun became a paid clerk for the Commission before transferring to the National Museum position, where she became a self-educated expert in marine biology.
  • Rathbun had hired Waldo L. Schmitt in 1910 as a temporary assistant, and as assistant curator in 1914 asked that he be hired on a permanent basis. When Smithsonian officials denied her request due to budget concerns, Rathbun offered to resign her position and continue her duties on a volunteer basis if Schmitt (who later became head curator of biology) were made her permanent assistant. Her offer was accepted; she went off the payroll, was named honorary research associate and continued working for the next 23 years without pay. She was responsible for identifying the famous Atlantic Blue Crab of the Chesapeake Bay, which was named in her honor, and inaugurated a record-keeping system that is still in use. Known for her dedication to her work, she was awarded a number of honorary degrees and was a member of many scientific organizations.


  • Schmitt, Waldo L (Waldo Lasalle) 1887-1977
  • Rathbun, Mary Jane 1860-1943
  • Rathbun, Richard 1852-1918
  • United States Fish Commission
  • United States National Museum
  • United States National Museum Division of Marine Invertebrates


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Copy located in "Publications Using SI Archives Collections, A-Z." Smithsonian Institution Archives, File Room. Includes photographs.

Contained within

The Rathbun-Rathbone-Rathburn Family Historian Vol. Three, Number Three (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


July 1983


  • Marine Biology
  • Crustacea
  • Crabs
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Personnel management
  • Employees
  • Carcinology
  • Marine biology
  • Biography
  • Smithsonian Institution--Employees

Physical description

Number of pages: 2 Page numbers: 35 & 46

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