Monday, August 31, 2015

Rachel Carson, Marine Biologist and Ecologist

Written by Elisabeth Pendergrass

Born: May 27, 1907, Springdale, Pennsylvania
Died: April 14, 1964, Silver Spring Maryland

S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • Marine Biologist
  • Ecologist -Writer -Activist
  • Mother of the Environmental Movement 

Her Story...

“Human beings were but one part of nature distinguished primarily by their power to alter it, in some irreversibly.” 
Often times, human beings forget that every single action we do has an effect on the world around us. Sometimes that effect is minimal and goes unnoticed, but sometimes those minimal actions build up over time and cause harm.. Rachel Carson was one of the women on the forefront of this notion. She fought for awareness and change in chemical regulations and government practices.

Rachel Carson was a woman with ideas that were far beyond her time . She was an empowered woman whose love for writing and science allowed her to bring awareness to the harmful effects of chemicals in the environment. Not only did she become an advocate for better government practices, she also wrote about the ocean and the magic it holds in such a lyrical and enthralling way.

Rachel Carson conducts research off the Florida Atlantic Coast with Bob Hines, 1952.
Image via U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
And So It Begins…
Rachel Carson was born on May 27 in 1907 on a farm in Springdale, Pennsylvania. At a very young age, her mother supported and pushed her to pursue her love for nature and writing. She was originally published in fourth grade, but her accomplishments were just beginning.

Although women were going to college during this period, it was not exactly a common occurrence. The fact that Rachel Carson attended and graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women in 1929 is a great feat. In between undergraduate school and graduate school, she worked at the Woods Hole Marine Biology Lab. She was awarded a full time scholarship to get her master’s at John Hopkin’s University in 1932 where she studied Marine Zoology. Regardless of the fact that her education focused on the sciences, Rachel’s love and talent for writing never subsided.

Headlines like this one in the New York Times in 1962 showed Carson's warnings were being taken seriously.
Image via Environment & Society Portal.
She is most well known as a writer for her published works like “The Sea Around Us” published in 1952 and “The Edge of the Sea” (c. 1955). Before these books were released, she was the Editor-in-Chief for the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, but became a full time writer in 1952. She took her talents and loves and combined them to express science, the ocean, and its’ wonders in a lyrical, spiritual and emotional way.

Rachel Carson is a role model; I strive to have her courage and strength. In 1962, she wrote “Silent Spring” challenging the government to change their practices with chemical pesticides. She lived through World War II and was concerned for the health of society due to the massive misuse of chemicals throughout the war. She was often attacked by the chemical companies or disregarded due to her “alarmist” thoughts, but she held her ground. She stood up for what she believed in and brought human awareness to the fact that we are a key factor in a delicate system.

All rights reserved © 1963 Charles Schulz

But All Good Things Must Come to an End
Even during her long fight with breast cancer, she was continuously fighting to bring awareness to the issues of humanity’s effect on the environment. In the end, her hard work began to pay off. Her research, and support from the Science Advisory Committee, lead to state legislature for proper pesticide control and practices. Rachel Carson died on April 14th in 1964, but she continues to live on today in her pledge and in her words.
"I pledge myself to preserve and protect America's fertile soils, her mighty forests and rivers, her wildlife and minerals, for on these her greatness was established and her strength depends." ~Rachel Carson, 1946
In April 2014, Google honored Rachel Carson with her own logo for a day.

Learn More


Books by Rachel Carson:
  • Under the Sea-Wind, 1941
  • The Sea Around Us, 1951
  • The Edge of the Sea, 1955
  • Silent Spring, 1962
  • The Sense of Wonder, 1998 (posthumous publication)

Books About Rachel Carson:
  • Rachel Carson, Witness for Nature (Linda Lear, 1997)
  • On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (William Souder, 2012)
  • Girls Who Looked Under Rocks (Atkins/Conner, 2012) - Excellent for young readers

Mary Anning, Paleontologist

Written by Elisabeth Pendergrass

May 21,1799 - March 9, 1847
Lyme Regis, Dorset, England

S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • Paleontologist
  • Fossil collector
  • Discovered the first first correctly-identified ichthyosaur skeleton and the first two plesiosaur skeletons

Her Story

Mary Anning was an extraordinary woman who shone in a male-dominated world. Her discoveries were classified as some of the most significant geological finds of all time, yet her name is not a common household name. Brought up in poverty and anonymity, Mary Anning shook the scientific community like no one ever thought a woman could.

Lyme Regis, England
Mary Anning was born in Dorset, England on the cliffs of Lyme Regis to Richard and Mary Anning. She was the oldest of ten children, but unfortunately, only she and her brother, Joseph, survived to adulthood. Their father was a carpenter and the rest of the family sold fossils they found along the beach and in the cliffs to keep an income. Her father died when Mary was eleven, which pushed the family into more debt. It was not until Lt.-Col Thomas Birch, a professional fossil collector, got to know the Anning family that he decided to sell his fossil collection and donate the proceeds to the Anning family. He felt that they should not live in poverty when their findings had already contributed so much to the scientific community.

Mary Anning's rock hammer, via
The Discovery to Fame 
In 1811, when Mary Anning was only eleven, she and her brother Joseph found the first complete Ichthyosaur - a huge discovery! This discovery, along with many of her marine reptiles findings, opened possibilities to investigate prehistoric life and gain a better understanding of how life and the world began. In 1823 when she found the Long-Necked Plesiosaurus, the sea dragon. When it was validated by a member of the geological society the Anning family became legitimate and respectable in the fossil community. While running the family fossil business, she continued to make remarkable discoveries like the unearthing of the Pterodactylus, also known as the “Flying-Dragon”.

Letter and drawing from Mary Anning announcing the discovery of a fossil animal now known as
Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, 26 December 1823

A Woman to Remember 
Although very little is known about the life of Mary Anning, she is one of the most significant female scientists in history. At age 36, she was awarded an annual pay from the British association for the Advancement of Science and Geological Society of London. She was also the first honorary member of the Dorset County Museum. Towards the end of her life, she opened up a shop to sell fossils, stones and shells. Sadly, she passed away at the age of 47 after a long battle with breast cancer. Due to the circumstances and time she was born in, Mary Anning’s work was often placed in collections and museums without any accreditation, which caused her family to fade from public mind and the scientific community. Anna Pinney, a young writer who would occasionally accompany Mary, wrote about the negligence and mistreatment that Mary would receive from the scientific community in relation to her gender.

Mary was the first to document the Dimorphodon, a flying pterosaur. via

Bones, Bones, and Bones
Contrary to popular belief, Mary Anning proved that our roots and our upbringing do not define us or our future. Many scientists within the geological community were surprised by Mary Anning’s skill and knowledge since she had come from such a poor background. Mary Anning’s discoveries opened up a world of possibilities for the scientific community. By finding these fossils, she provided evidence that challenged the biblical view of creation and sparked the exploration into the origin of life on earth. She was a woman who did not let her background, her gender or societal limitations stop her from becoming one of the most significant scientists in the geological community.
 “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”-Charles Dickens
Google honored Mary Anning with her own "doodle" on May 21, 2014

Learn More about Mary Anning 


Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Word from the Ladies: Caroline Lucretia Herschel

Caroline Lucretia Herschel, the lady of comets, wrote the epitaph that is found on her grave. She chose these words to mark her final resting place. 

Keep your eyes on the stars and the sciences, ladies. Be S.T.E.A.M. Empowered.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Mary Putnam Jacobi, Physician and Writer

Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, via Library of Congress
Written by Jill M. Staake

Born: August 31, 1842, London
Died: June 10, 1906, New York

S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • First female student at the École de Médecine, University of Paris
  • Organized the Women's Medical Association of New York City
  • Published fiction along with important medical studies and women's suffrage writings

Her Story

In August 2015, Senator Elizabeth Warren stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate to make an impassioned speech in defense of the organization Planned Parenthood. One passage caught the country's attention particularly:“Do you have any idea what year it is?” she demanded scathingly. “Did you fall down, hit your head and think you woke up in the 1950s or the 1890s? Should we call for a doctor?”

Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, who had died more than 100 years earlier, would doubtless have cheered Warren's speech. Dr. Jacobi certainly would have been thrilled to see a female senator in a position to defend women's health care rights, since she herself spent her later years devoted to demanding the right for women to vote and participate in the political process. But she would have most likely been disappointed to realize that, more than a century later, women's health remained a subject about which so many are still so uninformed. Senator Warren was facing a room of men with the same ignorant ideology that Dr. Jacobi had faced her entire career. But like Senator Warren, Dr. Jacobi was determined to make her voice, and her scientific knowledge, heard.

Literature First
Born in 1842 in London, Mary (called Minnie by her family) Putnam moved with her family back to their home, New York City, when she was quite young. Mary's father, George, was a publisher, founding the company which is known today as G. P. Putnam & Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing. Mary was first educated mainly at home by her mother, whose primary interest was in instilling a love of great literature in her daughter. Mary began writing at a young age, and by the age of 16 had written a piece of short fiction, Found and Lost, which her father considered good enough to be published. She received $80 for the piece when it was published in Atlantic Monthly in 1860.

Mary enjoyed writing, but had a much greater curiosity about the world around her. After spending two years at a new public school for girls and graduating in 1859, she began to study Greek and science with private tutors. But perhaps the most important part of her early education came from time spent studying medicine with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who just ten years earlier was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.

Mary Putnam as a medical student
The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute,
Harvard University, photograph by Bogardus
Liberté, Égalité, and Medical Studies
Medicine and its study became the driving force in Mary's life. She served as a medical aide during the Civil War, and received degrees from the New York College of Pharmacy and the Female (later "Women's") Medical College of Pennsylvania. After a short time of practicing medicine, Dr. Putnam (as she was now entitled to be called) decided she needed more study to be truly effective. She headed to Paris in 1866 to request admittance at the École de Médecine of the University of Paris.

Women in medicine were no more common in France than in the U.S. at the time, and the men of the profession seemed unsure of how to treat her. When Mary asked to be admitted to a dissection room, the professor agreed - if she would dress in men's clothing. Mary, of course, found this to be ridiculous. She refused, and was allowed to attend dressed as she saw fit. The professor was impressed with her, and later supported her application to the École de Médecine itself, making her the first woman admitted. (She would later become the second woman to graduate.)

The Question of Rest
Mary returned from Paris and took an especial interest in the Women's Medical College where she had studied. Mary and others felt standards there were not as high as they should be, and she joined in the effort to make the school a respected place of learning for women interested in medicine. Dr. Emily Blackwell later said:
It was at the time of the greatest difficulty and discouragement for women students and practitioners...It was at this opportune moment that Dr Putnam arrived... She brought as her contribution to the new work an enthusiastic love of the scientific side of medicine and a high standard of medical education...To many of the women students flocking to New York she was an inspiration, and not a few of them owed to her their first conception of the breadth and serious importance of the great field of medicine to which they were seeking entrance...She was an unsparing and outspoken critic of shallow knowledge, slip shod methods, and hollow pretence in any shape.
A reprint of Dr. Clarke's study
Read the full study here.
But as Dr. Putnam was working to win respect for women seeking education in fields like medicine, others were continuing to insist women simply weren't capable of higher education at all. In 1873, Dr. Edward H. Clarke of Harvard published Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for the Girls. Despite the title, there was nothing "fair" about Clarke's conclusions. He claimed that women who didn't rest during menstruation would damage their reproductive organs. Therefore, he argued, women were unable to compete in higher education and professional careers without doing themselves harm.

Mary, who by now had married pioneering pediatrician Dr. Abraham Jacobi, knew these claims were hogwash. What's more, she set about proving Dr. Clarke wrong, using the best scientific and research methods available to her at the time. She spent more than a year producing a 200-page study, The Question of Rest for Women during Menstruation, published in 1876. The National Library of Medicine website notes, "Dr. Jacobi provided tables, statistics, and sphygmographic tracings of pulse rate, force, and variations to illustrate the stability of a woman's health, strength, and agility throughout her monthly cycle. Both her paper and her example offered irrefutable proof of the accuracy of her position." Her work won her respect from her peers - and the Boylston Prize from Harvard University.

Jacobi's work; full text available here
Votes for Women
Throughout her busy and varied medical career, Mary remained interested in the betterment of society in general, giving lectures to working women and helping them organize the Working Women's Society. In 1894, that general interest turned to a specific passion for a woman's right to vote, eventually leading to the publishing of another major work, Common Sense Applied to Woman Suffrage. Once again, she applied research and hard facts to make her case. She examined the 15th Amendment in detail and traced the history of women's education, legal status, and marital rights. She concluded toward the end of the book:
The extreme ignorance of the subject shown in the written protests... are natural to the inexperience of people who begin to talk volubly about what they themselves profess to have hardly ever thought. The gist of the opposition lies chiefly in the dread of innovation... an instinct intensified, moreover, by innumerable forces of tradition, training, and environment. Opposition to what is new, necessarily subsides so soon as the new has become the customary... Let the women try their hand! (Common Sense Applied to Woman Suffrage, p. 192)
Mary used more refined words than Senator Elizabeth Warren did over a century later, but the basic ideas remain the same. Let women decide what is best for women - and learn the facts before you open your mouth to speak.

What She Won, She Won Fairly
Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi displayed a true interest in exploring and understanding the world around her throughout her entire life, and that quality was to carry her along right to the end of her years. She died in 1906 of a brain tumor, but rather than spending her final days lamenting her time cut short, she instead continued her work. Her final publication was titled Description of the Early Symptoms of the Meningeal Tumor Compressing the Cerebellum. From Which the Writer Died. Written by Herself.

Her eulogy to herself might have been cold and clinical in nature, but those speaking at her memorial, held in early 1907, were much more eloquent. They spoke of her own education and determination to allow other women the same and better opportunities. They praised her scientific mind and open heart. A fellowship was already planned in her name to continue the fine work she had begun. Dr. Charles L. Dana, one of her colleagues, explained how she had earned respect for herself and for all deserving women in the future:
[I]t was her character and the influence upon the community of such a woman following the profession of medicine that will constitute her greatest memorial. Dr Jacobi was a woman with talents almost amounting to genius, joined to the highest ideals in the practice of her art and in the conduct of life. Therefore that such a woman became a doctor, ennobled the calling and made it an easier and more dignified thing for women later to follow it. This is what we medical men all felt about her, irrespective of her specific scientific accomplishments.

We all liked Dr Jacobi very much as a woman and as a woman physician She had no pettiness or jealousies that we could ever discover. I never heard her speak harshly of any one and I never heard any one speak harshly of her. What she won she won fairly and because her talents commanded it and we recognized it.

Learn More:

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Jeanne Villepreux-Power, Natural Historian and Marine Biologist

via Women Rock Science
Written by Jill M. Staake

Born: September 25, 1794, France
Died: January 25, 1871, France

S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • Inventor of the modern aquarium
  • Published two works on the wildlife of Sicily

Her Story

In the early 1800s, Jeanne Villepreux-Power had a problem. She was fascinated by the underwater fauna surrounding the island of Sicily, but studying these creatures in their natural environment was very difficult. Diving bells were available, but prohibitively expensive for the average citizen of course. Diving suits had been invented a hundred years earlier, but were mostly used by men for salvage and other commercial operations. Besides, Jeanne had a better idea, one that was almost astonishingly simple. She brought the undersea environment to her, inventing the modern aquarium.

Dress Sense
Jeanne was born in a small town in France, Juillac, two years after France abolished the monarchy and declared itself a republic. She grew up during a time of war with Britain and general unrest, but like any average citizens, Jeanne and her family had to go on with their daily lives. Her father was a shoemaker, and Jeanne was trained as a dressmaker. Not content with the opportunities available there, she left at age 18 to travel to Paris (legend says she walked the whole way). 

Just like today, the Paris of 1812 was a mecca for fashion. Jeanne found work as the assistant to a society dressmaker, but soon began to shine on her own. In 1816 Jeanne created the bridal outfit for Princess Caroline of The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which brought her both fame and the attention of British merchant James Power. They married in 1818 and made their home in Sicily.

Natural Curiosity
As the wife of a wealthy man, Jeanne no longer worked as a dressmaker, leaving her with time to explore her new home. She was interested in the flora and fauna of Sicily, roaming far and wide to document and draw what she saw. These notes would eventually become the basis for her book, Guida per la Sicilia (Guide to Sicily), published in 1842. But though what she found on land was interesting, it was the creatures hiding under the sea that fascinated her.

Image by Cécile Didier via Wikipedia
Like many biologists, Jeanne had a favorite among those she studied - Argonauta argo, known as the Greater Argonaut or Paper Nautilus. Others had already noted that the females of this pelagic octopus lived in a paper-thin shell, but Jeanne wanted to know more about that shell. The popular belief was that, since no other octopus was known to create its own shell, this one didn't either - it was assumed that Argonauta argo must use shells created by other creatures (like a hermit crab does). Jeanne wasn't so sure, but studying the creature in its natural environment was difficult. It was time to think outside the box - or rather, inside a new kind of box.

Age of Aquaria
The idea of an aquarium seems so simple to us today, and in fact, the Romans and Chinese had developed marble and porcelain equivalents hundreds of years before. But Jeanne's aquaria were made of glass, designed especially for the study of marine organisms. She created three different types of aquaria, each for specific types of study. The first would seem most familiar to us - a simple box made of glass in a metal frame, designed to be kept on dry land and filled with living specimens. The other two were meant to be used in the field; one was a glass box with a metal cage around it, which could be lowered into shallow water. The other was to be used at deeper depths, anchored to the bottom and brought back to the surface as needed.

Using these new devices, Jeanne was able to conclude (correctly) that the female Greater Argonaut creates her own paper-thin eggcase that coils around itself. She published her findings in 1839 in a book called Observations et expériences physiques sur plusieurs animaux marins et terrestres (Physical observations and experiments on several marine and terrestrial animals), Her work brought her great respect and fame at the time, with contemporary colleague Richard Own christening her the "Mother of Aquariophily."

Lost at Sea
In 1843, Jeanne and her husband left Sicily to live in London and Paris. While they both made the voyage safely, the ocean had one last challenge to throw at Jeanne. The ship carrying the majority of her research was wrecked, and her collections, notes, and  records sank to the murky deep, lost forever. Perhaps disheartened by the literal drowning of 20 years of work, Jeanne gave up her marine studies, which would have been difficult while living in London and Paris anyway. She continued to write and publish, but her greatest innovations were behind her.
Home aquarium circa 1860, via Wikimedia Commons
Jeanne's fame faded quickly after her death, with little heard about her during the following century. Recently, though, her name and accomplishments have begun to be celebrated again. In 1995, the Historical Society of Messina re-published her Guida per la Sicilia for new audiences to experience. In 1997, a large crater on Venus was named "Villepreux-Power" in her honor. Her greatest scientific legacy, though, is found in millions of labs, schools, and homes around the world, in the form of glass aquaria filled with marine fauna and flora. Jeanne Villepreux-Power created a new way for humankind to explore, understand, and enjoy the world in which we live - an invaluable gift for generations to come.

Learn More:

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A word from the ladies: Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian, Lepidopterist and Artist

Maria Sibylla Merian c. 1700, 
Copperplate by Jacobus Houbraken 
from a portrait by Georg Gsell
Written by Kristen Gilpin

Born 1647 in Frankfurt.
Died 1717 in Amsterdam.

S.T.E.A.M. Powers: 

  • Botanical illustrator
  • Entomological illustrator
  • Scientific author writing in local language, rather than Latin to make her work more accessible.
  • Worked from live specimens of insects rather than preserved versions and often reared her own specimens to entirely observe life cycle.
  • Scientific explorer

Her Story...

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt, a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire. This middle class young lady was a child of a family of printers and artists and she started training in painting at a young age, under the tutelage of her step-father and several of his apprentices. In addition to painting the flowers and insects that she found beautiful, she also began to collect insects, especially butterflies. Marian would carefully rear the larvae she collected and study the butterflies during each stage of their lives and record the process of their metamorphosis in her paintings.

Merian married her father's apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff and moved to his home city of Nuremberg. The couple had two daughters, Dorothea Maria and Johanna Helena. Maria Sibylla and Graff separated and Maria Sibylla and her daughters moved to a Labadist religious colony for a time.

Illuminated Copper engraving 
from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 
Plate IX. Maria Sibylla Merian, 1705
 A Great Journey: In 1699, Maria Sibylla and her daughter Dorothea Maria took passage on a ship to the Dutch colony of Surinam. Paid for in part by the sale of their belongings and in part as a grant from the city of Amsterdam, these two women explorers traveled across the Atlantic to the eastern coast of South America in a time when women rarely traveled without family and even more rarely as scientific explorers.

While in Surinam, Maria Sibylla and her daughter collected insects of all kinds and reared them to observe their full life cycles. Maria Sibylla used the names provided by the indigenous people and often paid them to bring her insects that she had not yet seen. Due to concerns of health and a possible case of Malaria, Maria Sibylla had to return to Amsterdam two years later. After her return, she published her masterwork: The Insects of Suriname.

In her lifetime, Maria Sibylla depicted and illustrated the life-cycle of 186 species. Both of her daughters, Dorothea Maria and Johanna Helena, also became accomplished illustrators and together, the three ensured that women illustrators could produce works as fine as any man. Maria Sibylla wrote not in the accepted language of science, Latin, but rather in the vernacular, which allowed public at large to find a better understanding of the life of insects. She left a lasting legacy of curiosity, knowledge and beauty that is still celebrated today.

Learn More:

Books by Merian:
Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 
Plate XX

Books about Merian and her Work:

Books about Maria Sibylla Merian for Children:

Online resources