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

Elizabeth Britton, Bryologist

Written by Kristen Gilpin

Born: 1858
Died: 1934

S.T.E.A.M. Powers:
  • Botanist
  • Bryologist (Study of mosses)
  • Preservation of native North American Wildflowers
  • Co-Founded the New York Botanical Garden
  • Listed as one of the top 1000 scientists, and was one of only 19 women listed in the publication "American Men of Science"
  • Honorary Curator of Mosses at the New York Botanical Garden
Her Story...

Elizabeth Gertrude Knight was born in 1858 to James and Sophie Anne Knight in New York City. As a child, she spent her time between New York City and her family's sugar plantation and furniture factory in Matanzas, Cuba. Elizabeth graduated from Normal (later Hunter) College at the Early age of just 17 and then joined the staff of the college as a critic teacher and tutor.

In 1879 Elizabeth joined the Torrey Botanical Society which studied the flora of New York City and it's surrounding lands. As a member, she began publishing papers in the Society's Bulletin. By 1883, she was a known bryologist, a scientist specializing in mosses. During these years with the Torrey Botanical society, Elizabeth met and later married Nathaniel Lord Britton, a fellow botanist and taxonomist.

Nathaniel Lord Britton was a professor of Geology at Columbia College (now Columbia University) in New York City. Elizabeth became acquainted with the Botany department and was soon given charge of the department's collection of mosses. Through physically collecting mosses and purchasing collections from other bryologists, Elizabeth was able to establish an impressive collection.

Working together, the Brittons helped to gather support for an lead the charge on the creation of the New York Botanical Garden, of which Nathaniel served as the first director. Elizabeth was presented with the title Honorary Curator of Mosses and oversaw the move of the botanical collection of Columbia College to the New York Botanical Garden, including the mosses she had been carefully collecting.

In addition to the study of mosses, Elizabeth Britton was also a devotee of native plants and helped to found the Wild Flower Preservation Society of America. This society was one of the first of its kind, working to preserve endangered wildflowers. She was also one of the founders and later president ofthe Sullivent Moss society, which later became the American Bryological and Lichenological Society, which is still active today.

In their later years, the couple was studying the flora of Puerto Rico. Both Elizabeth and Nathaniel died in 1934, within months of each other and the pair were interred at the Moravian Cemetery in New Dorp, Staten. The moss genus Bryobrittonia was named in honor of the "Mother of American Bryology", as were 15 other species.
Photo credit: Lisa Vargues via the Plant Talk Blog

Elizabeth Britton published 346 papers and articles, and 170 of those were about her favored topic, mosses. The standard botanical author abbreviation for her words is "E. Britton"
Vintage postcard showing the greenhouse at the
New York Botanical Garden
Learn More:

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Alice Ball, Chemist

Written by Jill M. Staake

Alice Augusta Ball, 1915
Born: July 24, 1892, Seattle, Washington
Died: December 31, 1916, Seattle, Washington

S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • Developed the chemistry behind the first modern treatment for leprosy
  • First woman and African-American to receive a Master's Degree from the University of Hawaii

Her Story

You've most likely heard of leprosy, the chronic infection also called Hansen's Disease that causes skin lesions and more. You've probably even heard of Moloka'i, the Hawaiian island where lepers were isolated to die a miserable death. But chances are good you've never heard of chaulmoogra oil, and chances are even better you didn't know that a woman named Alice Ball was responsible for the chemistry involved in making this oil the first effective treatment for leprosy,

A Born Chemist
Alice Ball was born in 1892, into a family in which chemistry already had its importance. Her father and particularly her grandfather (James Bell, Sr.) were photographers, and young Alice likely spent time in their darkrooms watching as chemical baths brought forth pictures seemingly from nowhere. It was probably no surprise to her family when 18-year-old Alice graduated Seattle High School with high grades in the sciences, and chose to attend the University of Washington to study chemistry. By the time she graduated four years later, Alice had Bachelor's Degrees in both pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy. With scholarship offers from both UC Berkeley and the University of Hawaii, Alice chose to continue her studies in Honolulu.

Hawaii wasn't entirely new for Alice. She and her family had lived there for a year when she was younger, in the hopes of helping her grandfather's painful rheumatoid arthritis. He died only a year later, though, and the family returned to Washington. Alice must have remembered that year in Hawaii with affection, and now embarked on her continuing education there. While receiving her Master's Degree in chemistry, she was also quietly breaking down barriers - she became the first woman and and the first African-American to receive this advanced degree from the University of Hawaii.

While working on her Master's thesis about the "Chemical Constituents of Piper Methysticum" (kava), Alice received a request from Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, an assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii. Hollmann was working with chaulmoogra oil, long used as a traditional remedy for treating leprosy in China and India. Although it showed some promise, there were many barriers to making this treatment practical, and Hollman hoped Alice could help him figure out the chemistry involved.

Leprosy sufferers in Hawaii. Photo via NPS Archives.
Hope For The Hopeless
Leprosy and Hawaii might seem like an odd mix, but Hawaii was just one of many places at the time that mandated that infected persons be isolated from the rest of the population. Though it might not seem like a hardship to be left marooned on a Hawaiian island, the leper colony at Kalaupapa was no paradise. The spit of land was surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean, and divided from the rest of the island by towering and impenetrable cliffs. Infected people were left there to die, and for many years they had no shelters other than what they could build themselves, and food provided every week or so by boat from the mainland. It was a miserable existence for people already suffering from a miserable disease, and it was widely accepted that colonies like these were not an acceptable way of treating the ill.

Hydnocarpus wrightianus
Photo by Anoopmail via Wikipedia
So doctors were excited to learn of chaulmoogra oil, which came from the nut of the Hydnocarpus wightianus tree and seemed to have real potential for helping relieve the suffering of those with leprosy. The problem was, they had no good way to administer the oil effectively. Applying it topically didn't seem to do much good. Giving it by mouth general resulted in intense nausea and burning in the stomach. And injecting it under the skin only created large abscesses. The oils were so dense that they were unable to mix with the water in the body, and instead merely stayed under the surface, often causing the patient more pain rather than helping.

Dr. Hollman knew if he could find a way to make the injectable version more water-soluble, chaulmoogra oil had real potential to help patients. Other chemists had tried, to no avail. So Alice set to work, attempting to isolate the ethyl esters of the fatty acids in the oil. At age 23, Alice developed the "Ball Method", which would allow chaulmoogra oil to be injected and absorbed by the body. In the following years, pharmaceutical companies processed using the Ball Method and created excellent injectable medications that returned many leprosy patience to such good health they were allowed to leave their isolation colonies and return home to their families.

It was an astounding achievement, for a chemist of any gender or race - but as often happened to female scientists, it was to be many years before her contributions would be acknowledged.

A Life Cut Short
Medical professionals prepare
chaulmoogra oil for injection in 1928
By 1916, Alice was beginning to show signs of illness. Eventually, these were severe enough that she resigned her position at the University of Hawaii (where she had become the first African-American chemistry professor), and returned to Seattle. History seems uncertain what illness ailed her; her death certificate lists "tuberculosis", but oddly, it was altered. A newspaper at the time indicated she might have accidentally inhaled chlorine gas while performing experiments in her classroom, which could also have led to her death. No matter the cause, a very promising young scientist was dead at age 24.

This tragedy was compounded by the way her research was treated after her death. Her mentor, University of Hawaii President Dr. Arthur Lyman Dean, published her research under his own name, even calling the process Alice invented the "Dean Method". It was 90 years before Alice's work was recognized. In 2000, the University of Hawaii placed a plaque to honor her on the school's chaulmoogra tree, and her contributions were finally brought to the attention of the wider world.

Today, leprosy is curable with a regular drug regimen, and leper colonies are no longer in use in most of the world. We also know that leprosy isn't nearly as contagious as once feared, though in some parts of the world it continues to pose a problem. In remote areas where drugs aren't readily available, some doctors still use the Ball Method to prepare chaulmoogra oil to help their leprosy patients. The work of a brilliant young chemist, cut short in her prime, still has the ability to improve lives one hundred years later - a legacy worth admiring.

Learn More:

Maria Martin Bachman, Natural Science Artist

Written by Jill M. Staake

Born: July 3, 1796, Charleston, South Carolina
Died: December 18, 1863, Columbia, South Carolina

S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • Natural Science Artist
  • Painted many of the plants and insects that appear in John Audubon's famous works

Her Story

Like many women of her time and place, Maria Martin Bachman was brought up to be an ornamental part of the background. A woman of genteel birth in the antebellum South, Maria was given an excellent education in classic literature, French, drawing, and even some of the natural sciences. Still, the expectation was that she would simply marry and raise a family, using the knowledge gained in her youth only for her own enjoyment and the education of her children in years to come. That she went on to contribute to some of the most famous paintings ever created is a testament to her own talent, as well as a bit of luck for being in the right place at the right time.

Circle of Naturalists
In the years before the Civil War, Charleston had a group of men who were interested in science, though mainly with finding a way to reconcile the origin of species with the stories told in the Bible. However, their studies of the natural world brought them in contact with early scientists from around the country, including John J. Audubon, who came to Charleston in 1831. He became close with John Bachman, who was married at the time to Maria's sister Harriet, a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. Audubon visited Charleston often, nearly always staying with the Bachman family.

Maria, as the younger sister, lived with the Bachmans to help care for the family, and so became part of this special friendship. (Harriet died in 1846, and Maria and John married several years later.) Audubon found the entire family willing and eager to help with his studies of birds, and Maria's talent was especially apparent. He encouraged her to sketch birds, offering instruction and feedback. Eventually, he suggested she begin painting flowers and insects as well, and soon discovered her skills here surpassed even his own. In 1833, he wrote to his son, "Miss Martin with her superior talents, assists us greatly in the way of drawing; the insects she has drawn are, perhaps, the best I've seen."

Maria painted the flowers and painted lady butterfly shown alongside
Townsend's Bunting, now known as the Dickcissel.
Part of the Background
Audubon's paintings of birds were unique, as he placed them in real-life situations showing their interactions with their surroundings. However, as he was most interested in working with the birds themselves (mostly painted from taxidermied specimens), he was glad to have someone like Maria provide the trees, flowers, and insects that make his paintings into such special works of art. Maria painted the flowers and insects that appear in 18 of Audubon's Birds of America (see them all here).

One of the paintings on which Maria collaborated is that of Bachman's Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii), named for her husband and now considered most likely extinct due to habitat loss. The warbler is shown perched on a branch of Franklinia alatamaha, a rare tree with a limited native habitat and named for Benjamin Franklin. Maria also painted Bachman's Sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis), another species named for John Bachman.

Maria herself was honored by Audubon in plate 417 of the Birds of America. He named Maria's Woodpecker for her (Picus martinae), though this is now considered a subspecies of the Hairy Woodpecker and no longer bears her name.
In honouring this species with the name of Miss MARIA MARTIN, I cannot refrain from intimating the respect, admiration, and sincere friendship which I feel towards her, and stating that, independently of her other accomplishments, and our mutual goodwill, I feel bound to make some ornithological acknowledgment for the aid she has on several occasions afforded me in embellishing my drawings of birds, by adding to them beautiful and correct representations of plants and flowers. (Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. v. P. 181.)
Beyond Birds
Image courtesy of the Charleston Museum
Maria's work with Audubon's birds was not the limit of her career by any means. She engaged in a serious study of America's insect species, using Say's The Entomology of North America for studies and creating her own works as well. She contributed to The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, a joint work by her husband and Audubon, as well as to the first major work on American herpetology. In most cases, her work was uncredited and anonymous. Her family preserved her work where possible, but many of their belongings were lost to the destruction of the Civil War years. Those works that remain are now housed in the Charleston Museum.

Maria died in 1863, and was largely forgotten for many years. Like the beautiful artwork she provided for Audubon and others, her very existence was relegated to the background. In recent years, though, her contributions have been rediscovered, and her name brought to the forefront at last.

Learn More about Maria Martin Bachman

Caroline Herschel, Astronomer

Written by Jill M. Staake

March 16, 1750 - January 9, 1848
Hanover, Prussia (Germany) and Slough, England

Caroline Herschel 1829, by M. F. Tielemanm 
S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • Astronomer
  • Discovered eight comets
  • Assisted her brother William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus, as the first paid female astronomer
  • First female member of the Royal Astronomical Society (with Mary Somerville)
  • Received the Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Gold Medal for Science from the King of Prussia

Her Story...

When astronomer Caroline Herschel died at the age of 97 in 1848, her gravestone was engraved with the epitaph she herself had written:
...The eyes of her who passed to glory, while below turned to the starry heavens; her own discoveries of the comets and her share in the immortal labours of her Brother, William Herschel, bear witness of this to later ages...
But this remarkable woman left more behind than a beautifully composed elegy; she had the discovery of eight comets to her name, a Gold Medal for Science from the King of Prussia, and the honor of being one of the first two female members of the Royal Astronomical Society. She was well-recognized by her colleagues in the natural sciences as a fine astronomer and scientist, and corresponded regularly with contemporaries such as Alexander von Humboldt and Joseph Banks. Her steadfast assistance to her astronomer brother William Herschel led to a steady paycheck from the King of England, and there is even a crater on the moon named for her. Like so  many great men and women, though, she started from very humble beginnings.

Caroline's signature (her given name in German was Carolina) from her music books. via Yale Library 
Per Aspera Ad Astera
Born in Hanover in 1750 as the fifth of six children in a musical family, Caroline's childhood was not very promising. A bout with typhus at the age of ten left her with a scarred face and stunted growth; her biographers note she was less than five feet tall. Her father attempted to provide her with some education, but her mother felt it was unnecessary for her to learn much beyond basic reading and writing. After the death of her father, Caroline's mother reluctantly agreed to allow her to follow in the musical footsteps of her father and brothers, who were all well-known and successful musicians. Caroline joined her brother William, who had moved to Bath in England, and began to study singing.

An advertisement for a concert where Caroline Herschel performed
This was, without a doubt, the turning point of her life. She became a successful concert singer, but soon discovered that her brother was much more devoted to his hobby as an astronomer than his job as a music teacher. Caroline, being devoted mainly to William, joined him as his assistant, and two amazing astronomical careers were launched.

"I Am Hooked!"
Being the assistant to an astronomer was a less than glamorous job. In the beginning, Caroline mainly served as a note-taker and secretary for William as he studied the sky night after night, sitting faithfully by his side in all weathers. He progressed from early smaller telescopes to much larger ones, building a 20-foot telescope that required the astronomer to sit on a high platform to make observations while assistants below made adjustments and took notes. By 1782, William was made King's Astronomer to King George III, and by 1787, Caroline had been granted her own salary of 50 pounds per year to serve as William's assistant.
Salary letter from King George III,
via Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Caroline was invaluable to her brother, remaining at William's side through cold nights and illnesses. Her dedication is best expressed by the happenings one cold night in December 1783.
My brother, at the front of the telescope, directed me to make some alteration in the lateral motion, which was done by machinery, on which the point of support of the tube and mirror rested. At each end of the machine or trough was an iron hook, such as butchers use for hanging their joints upon, and having to run in the dark on ground covered a foot deep with melting snow, I fell on one of these hooks, which entered my right leg above the knee. My brother's call, "Make haste!" I could only answer by a pitiful cry, "I am hooked!"
William and the workmen immediately came to her rescue, but as Caroline noted, "they could not lift me without leaving nearly two ounces of my flesh behind." Caroline hobbled around for weeks while it healed, but her main concern seems to have been the effect on her brother's work: "I had, however, the comfort to know that my brother was no loser through this accident, for the remainder of the night was cloudy."

William Herschel's 20-foot scope. Caroline would have remained on the ground to take notes and make adjustments.

The Comet Sweeper
By now, Caroline was hooked in more than one way on astronomy. Her brother had given her own seven-foot Newtonian telescope earlier in 1783, and when she wasn't needed by him for other astronomical tasks, she spent hours each night "sweeping" the sky to look for comets. Her first concern was still William and his needs: "I began to use the new Newtonian small sweeper... but it could hardly be expected that I should meet with any comets in the part of the heavens where I swept, for I generally chose my situation by the side of my brother's instrument, that I might be ready to run to the clock or write down memorandums."

Caroline's sweeper telescope
photo by Geni via Wikipedia
In 1786, though, her own work suddenly vaulted her into the spotlight. It began with a simple note in her diary on August 1: "This evening I saw an object which I believe will prove to-morrow night to be a comet." She waited anxiously through a day of poor weather on the 2nd, but by 1:00 in the morning, the skies were clear enough for her to be able to say, "The object of last night is a comet." Her use of italics is all that betrays what must have been almost unbearable suspense and excitement.

William was out of town at the time, but Caroline was well used to corresponding with other scientists of the age. She sent several letters asking for others to help confirm her sighting, which they quickly did. Friends and colleagues delighted in the discovery, perhaps especially so because it was made by Caroline herself, rather than her brother. Fellow astronomer Alex Aubert wrote: "I am more pleased than you can well conceive that you have made it, and I think I see your wonderfully clever and wonderfully amiable brother, upon the news of it, shed a tear of joy. You have immortalized your name."

In the years ahead, Caroline would discover seven more comets, bringing her total to eight. She also was the first to document several important nebulae and star clusters. Contemporaries like Messier documented dozens of new astronomical objects in their lifetimes, but much of Caroline's own time was taken up by work for her brother. The time she had to focus on her own work was limited, but she accomplished much and was well-respected by her peers. Sir Joseph Banks, head of the Royal Society, wrote to her on the discovery of her third comet: "I am always happy to hear from you, but never more so than when you give me an opportunity of expressing my obligations to you for advancing the science you cultivate with so much success."

Caroline's notes on her first comet discovery. via Royal Astronomical Society / Science Photo Library
Astronomical Merit
In 1788, William Herschel married, and Caroline left him to live on her own for the first time. She continued to work with him closely, but had more time to focus on her own discoveries. William died in 1822, and Caroline made a somewhat startling choice - she left England, which had been her home for decades, and returned to Hanover, the city of her birth. She maintained a close relationship with her nephew, William's son John, who was an admirable astronomer and scientist in his own right, and continued to be revered in the scientific community.

Despite the scientific community's great respect for
her, Caroline's interest were still mocked by some,
as in this cartoon drawn in 1785.
via The Herschel Museum of Astronomy
Caroline spent years working on a catalog of 2,500 nebulae William had charted in his lifetime, and in 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her the Gold Medal for this work. It was the first time a woman had been so honored - and it wouldn't be until 1996 that another woman (Vera Rubin) received the honor again. In 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society went one step further, naming her one of their first female members (along with Mary Somerville), noting: "that while the tests of astronomical merit should in no case be applied to the works of a woman less severely than to those of a man, the sex of the former should no longer be an obstacle to her receiving any acknowledgment which might be held due to the latter."  In 1838, the Royal Irish Academy also elected her as an honorary member.

In 1846, her homeland also honored her. At the age of 96, she received the Gold Medal for Science from the King of Prussia. By this time, she had grown somewhat feeble, and the end of her life was near. She continued in good humor, though, as is evidenced by a quote from a letter written by a friend to her nephew: "[She] did not quite like old age with its weaknesses and infirmities, but...she too sometimes laughed at the world, [and] liked her meals." At age 97, she died peacefully at home, and her funeral was held in the same church where she had been christened nearly a century earlier. She was buried, at her request, with her father's almanac and a lock of her brother William's hair.

Riding The Polished Lenses
Caroline Herschel's name is sadly little known now outside the astronomical community, and sometimes even within. (An episode of the TV show Cosmos, which aired in 2014, covered the lives and accomplishments of William and John Herschel without even mentioning her name once.) But she is certainly not forgotten entirely. One of the comets she discovered bears her name (35P/Herschel-Rigollet), and she even has a crater on the moon named for her.

The poet Adrienne Rich wrote her poem Planetarium with Caroline in mind (See the full text here.). Her words paint the portrait of a hard-working woman, one with her feet firmly on the cold and snowy ground, but with a mind that soared among the stars - a legacy that Caroline surely deserves.
...a woman     ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments
or measuring the ground with poles’
she whom the moon ruled
like us
levitating into the night sky
riding the polished lenses... 

Learn More about Caroline Herschel

Other Books:

Eleanor Glanville, Entomologist

Written by Jill M. Staake

c. 1654 - 1709
Somerset, England

S.T.E.A.M. Powers:

  • Entomologist and Lepidopterist
  • One of only two British entomologists to have a native British butterfly named for them - the Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia)

Her Story...

Tickenham Court, where Lady Glanville lived and worked
When Eleanor Glanville was born at Tickenham Court in England in 1654, it wasn't just unusual for a woman to be interested in the natural sciences - it could be downright dangerous. In her lifetime, her "unnatural" behavior of catching butterflies and beating bushes to collect "wormes" was a great source of gossip among neighbors, and after her death her interest in caterpillars and butterflies would be used to set aside her will on the grounds that she suffered from madness when she wrote it. 

Noblest Collection
Today, though, Eleanor Glanville is remembered for much more than "odd" behavior. She created such an impressive collection of British butterflies that her male contemporaries at the time were astonished, saying she possessed "the noblest collection of butterflies, all English, which has sham'd us." Though much of her collection has been lost to the ages, at least a few specimens still survive hundreds of years later in collections at the Natural History Museum in London. 

Perhaps more importantly, Eleanor's collections were instrumental in helping to document the variety of British butterfly species. She formed a close friendship with James Petiver (1660 - 1718), a London pharmacist and naturalist who shared her great interest in lepidoptera. He used many of the species in her collections to create an illustrated catalog of British insects (Gazophylacium naturae artis, 1709), and even credited her in his text for one of the species.

Eleanor likely used a "clap net" like
 the one shown on the left in this image
from British Buttteflies (1862)
Collecting "Wormes"
Eleanor wasn't just interested in collecting and preserving specimens, though. She wanted to know more about the entire life cycle of butterflies. It was already known that caterpillars turned into butterflies via a pupal stage. What was less certain was just where those caterpillars came from in the first place. Many naturalists at the time believed in "spontaneous generation;" they believed that maggots simply arose out of dead flesh or, in the case of butterflies, that caterpillars emerged from the leaves they were found eating. Eleanor was unconvinced, though, and decided she needed to study living specimens to learn more.

She worked with local girls, calling them her apprentices, to collect as many caterpillars as they could. She and her helpers could be seen combing through bushes and lifting leaves of plants to look for caterpillars (often in states of dress not considered proper for "ladies" of the day). Neighbors reported the women would spread sheets beneath the shrubs and then beat them with long poles to catch the "wormes" that fell off, and she was also known to pay local children who brought her caterpillars for study.

Her goal with the collection of these caterpillars was to raise them to adulthood, studying their behavior, including the seeming magic of metamorphosis. Her workrooms were filled with jars holding different species of caterpillars, munching away on the food plants she provided. She documented her progress, providing some of the earliest known writings about rearing butterflies. (It's interesting to note that her methods of collection and rearing are nearly identical to the process we at MOSI Outside use today. If she were to walk into our Entomology Lab, the tanks of feeding caterpillars would feel very familiar to her, though she would likely envy our ability to control the temperature and humidity somewhat.)

Deprived of Her Senses
In her later years, Eleanor's oldest son Forest turned against her, laying the foundation for the overturning of her will. Neighbors turned out in large numbers to testify to her strange behavior over the years. Forest himself testified that his mother believed her children had been turned into fairies. The judge in the case eventually sided with Forest, overturning Eleanor's will on the grounds that "None but those deprived of their senses would go in pursuit of butterflies."

Despite the attitude of others, all evidence suggests that Eleanor found great satisfaction in her work with butterflies. She corresponded with other naturalists of the time, trading specimens and information, and in 1703 she visited London with a large collection of butterflies, which caused excitement among the naturalist community. As a woman, though, she could never become a member of the prestigious Royal Society, or even attend a meeting. She published no books or papers telling of her work, though fortunately she exchanged letters with several important (male) members of the scientific community at the time, giving us some records of her work.

Glanville Fritillary
In the end, her name lives on while many of her peers have sunk into relative obscurity. Her name was given to the Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia), making her one of only two British entomologists to have butterflies named for them. Eleanor was among the first to realize that this butterfly was different from other similar species by the small black spots on its hindwings. James Petiver documented it, first calling it the Lincolnshire Fritillary, but by 1748 the name had been changed to honor Eleanor and her work.

Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia), photo by Christian Fischer via Wikipedia
This little checkered orange and black butterfly was frequently found in the fens and wetlands of the Southeastern England of Eleanor's time. Over the years, though, most of the marshlands have been drained, changing the habitat drastically. The British population of the Glanville Fritillary is now constricted to the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands, with the occasional population appearing on the South Hampshire coast. (The butterfly has larger populations in other countries where its habitat still persists.)

The page below from British Butterflies by W. S. Coleman, published in 1862, shows the Glanville Fritillary (Fig 2) with other similar species. The author notes: "...[I]n such mean repute was the science of entomology held, mainly, I believe, on account of the small size of its objects, that an action at law was brought to set aside the will of an estimable woman, Lady Glanville, on the ground of insanity, the only symptom of which that they could bring forward in evidence was her fondness for collecting insects!"

We have no portrait of Eleanor Glanville to remember her by. Tickenham Court, her family home, still stands, but the marshlands that once surrounded it have changed completely. The very butterflies she once chased and documented so carefully have become rare in the areas where she once roamed. But Eleanor's story lives on, serving as inspiration for generations of women who have followed her into the study of natural sciences, especially those of us who go in pursuit of butterflies of our own.

Learn More

There are relatively few good sources readily available for information on Eleanor Glanville. Most researchers cite the article written by W. S. Bristowe, The Life of a Distinguished Woman Naturalist, Eleanor Glanville, published in a 1967 issue of the Entomologist's Gazette (vol. 18, p. 202 - 211), but no online version of this article appears to be available. Here are some other sources to try.


In Print: