Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fun with Seeds

Seed and Nursery Catalogs at The New York Botanical Garden

Thanks to a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), The New York Botanical Garden’s The LuEsther T. Mertz Library, the most comprehensive botanical and horticultural library in the Americas, has recently cataloged all 58,000 items in its Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection. The grant also funded the digitization of public domain pre-1923 American nursery catalogs and their publication to the web.

The Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, one of the largest and most important of its kind in the United States, provides one of the best primary sources of information available on the history and development of American botany, horticulture, and commercial agriculture. Their value to humanities research, however, extends far beyond these subjects alone.

Color, skillful drawing and appealing text popularized American nursery and seed catalogs. Maule's Seed Catalog. 1914.

The Importance of Seed Catalogs

Nursery and seed trade catalogs offer a unique window into other areas of American life, including publishing, landscape design, marketing, industry, and leisure activity, making them valuable resources for humanities research.

Nursery and seed catalogs often provide the first description of a newly introduced species or hybrid, and the establishment of accepted nomenclature for a plant or flower requires knowing the earliest date the name was used. One of the problems facing an International Registrar in establishing name priority is determining the date of the first valid publication for a new cultivar. Very often this publication is a seed catalog. Consequently, botanists and horticulturists utilize nursery catalogs to trace the development of new hybrids, varieties, and mutations.

Fruits for Long Island with abridged list of lawn and street trees, evergreens, shrubs, roses, vines and hardy flowers. 1898.

Enhancing Discovery of Seed and Nursery Catalogs

Searching the text of online vintage seed catalogs, however, has often been problematic. Seed catalogs are notoriously difficult subjects for Optical Character Recognition software (OCR) to parse. The picturesque fonts and elaborate page layouts so endearingly characteristic of seed catalogs have caused the resulting OCR output to be error prone and less than optimal, at least up to now.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has recently awarded a grant to the Missouri Botanical Garden and its partner institutions, including Harvard MCZ, Cornell University and the the Mertz Library at NYBG, to use purposeful gaming and crowd sourcing to improve the precision of OCR, thereby helping to optimize search and discovery of online collections. Despite the technical difficulties to be overcome, the compelling content of vintage American seed catalogs promises to motivate the search for solutions as it once did the efforts of generations of gardeners to grow flowers like the pictures in the catalog.

Fruits for Long Island with abridged list of lawn and street trees, evergreens, shrubs, roses, vines and hardy flowers. 1898.

Seeds and the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Beyond their pictorial features, another reason for the continued intense fascination with seed catalogs is that the American nursery and seed business at the turn of the last century was replete with Horatio Alger stories of enterprising individuals who combined impressive horticultural skills with savvy commercial instincts. The prosperous businesses established by James Vick, John Lewis Childs and D.M. Ferry are typical of these self-taught botanical entrepreneurs.

One image from the Luther Burbank seed catalog of 1916 vividly captures the heroic spirit of the era. It depicts the meeting of Thomas A. Edison, Henry Ford and Luther Burbank on the porch of Burbank’s Santa Rosa, California home in 1915. The aggressive herd of newspaper reporters and newsreel photographers who swarmed all over Burbank’s property that day prompted Edison to grumble “Darn these movies.” Burbank featured the meeting prominently in his catalogs as a celebrity endorsement of his plants and seeds.

Left to Right: Edison, Burbank and Ford. Mertz Library image in BHL.

One of the more colorful figures in the American nursery business was another Californian and a close friend of Luther Burbank’s named Carl Purdy (1861-1945). He was called the “Lily Man of Ukiah” by the press and today his life story seems almost mythical. In 1870, at the age of nine, Purdy was brought west in a covered wagon to the still pristine landscape of Mendocino County, California. When he reached adulthood he travelled on stagecoaches to business meetings and botanical conferences. He witnessed the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and was a key figure in the spectacular San Francisco World’s Fair of 1915. He was fluent in Spanish and several Native American languages and once wrote a splendid book about the extraordinary baskets fashioned by the Indians of Mendocino County. Above all, he studied and mastered the cultivation of California’s native bulbs and plants, successfully introducing them for the first time to European and American gardens. His self-taught knowledge of California’s flora was acquired first hand through precise observation and experimentation prompting the scholarly Willis Linn Jepson to acknowledge that Purdy’s expertise was of the highest order.

Purdy was well read, having immersed himself in classical literature from childhood. He wrote all of the text for his catalogs, filling page after page with expert horticultural instructions and elegant prose. His proud description of the scenery on his 180-acre horticultural ranch named “The Terraces” was a regular feature of his catalogs:

“From a scenic point of view, 'The Terraces' are probably the most unique gardens in the world. Large springs feed a mountain stream, which passes through a rich valley, and then, over four limestone bluffs in succession, each from 50 to 75 feet high, it plunges in many most charming cascades and waterfalls. Between the bluffs are the terraced slopes from which the gardens get their name.” 

Purdy’s seed and bulb catalogs of native California plants have for decades been one of the hidden treasures of the Mertz Library, but happily they are now easily accessed on both BHL and Mertz Digital.

Erythroniums (dog-toothed violets). Carl Purdy catalog of 1921.

To read more about Carl Purdy, his life and times, please see the Mertz Library’s LibGuide here.

Thousands of Seed Catalogs in BHL

Browse over 11,000 seed and nursery catalogs in the BHL collection, digitized primarily from the significant collections of The New York Botanical Garden, Cornell University and the National Agricultural Library. The collection will continue to grow supported in part by the Purposeful Gaming grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We welcome suggestions of catalogs to consider for digitizing and adding to the collection.

Andrew Tschinkel 
Digital Imaging Technician 
The New York Botanical Garden

We hope you enjoyed this post. Interested in guest-blogging for BHL? We'd love that! Natural history, biodiversity and conservation topics are especially welcomed. Email us your ideas at

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

We Need Books to…Identify New Species

This month, we’re publishing a series of blog posts outlining the importance of biodiversity literature, made available for free and open access through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, to today’s scientific research and conservation initiatives. With your help, we can help save biodiversity. 

The Science of Identifying Life on Earth

There are an estimated 8.75 million species on earth, of which almost 2 million have been described. Scientists classify about 18,000 new species per year, meaning that it may take hundreds of years to create a complete species catalog.

Short-eared Owl. Illustrated as part of Darwin's Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle (1839-43), which presented identification and descriptions for the zoology observed and collected during one of natural history's most famous expeditions.

Early explorers documented their observations and data about the world’s biodiversity in historic fields notes and published literature. These discoveries provide a foundation for modern scientific research and fueled the drive to systematically catalog life. The science of taxonomy classifies biological organisms using binomial nomenclature (which identifies organisms by genus and species) and hierarchies based on inferred evolutionary relatedness.

Taxonomists are charged with naming and classifying species, with a goal of one day identifying all life on earth. In order to name a new species, a taxonomist must first verify that the specimen has not yet been described by consulting museum collections, performing DNA sequencing, and reviewing the historic literature record. They may also need to ensure that related species or subspecies have not erroneously been classified as a single species by examining published treatments (species descriptions) and related type specimens.

Linnaeus, Carl. Systema Naturae, 10th Ed. (1758-59). Considered the beginning of zoological nomenclature, in which Linnaeus introduced binomial nomenclature for animals.

“Taxonomy is a science that keeps pace with the present but also draws upon the wealth of knowledge accumulated throughout its history,” stresses Dr. Sandra Knapp, botanist at the Natural History Museum, London. “The old literature is often just as important as the new,” elaborates Dr. John Sullivan, an evolutionary biologist with the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia and Cornell University. “If we were to describe new species without knowing what [previously-documented species really are], we risk re-describing [them] under a different name and creating a synonym.”

Morphology and behavior is also very important in determining taxonomic relationships for new and existing species. Historic natural history literature is saturated with such data, which, alongside original species descriptions, provides a critical foundation for ongoing classification work.

Thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, this crucial historic literature is now online, allowing taxonomists to access it wherever and whenever they need to. “I tend to think of BHL as my personal ichthyology library,” confided Dr. Sullivan. Before embarking on a trip to Africa to confirm the identity of a possible new fish, he downloaded the relevant taxonomic description from BHL. “I had it on my Kindle as I stood at the site,” he recalls. “Even if I lived in a library that had these volumes on the shelf, it would take me longer to locate what I was looking for!”

Spot-fin Porcupine Fish, from Ichtyologie, ou, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière des poissons (1785-97), the French version of Marcus Bloch's Allgemeine Naturgeschichte des Fische, a compendium of all fish known at the time. This work alone described 267 species new to science.

Who Cares if we Identify all the Species?

But why is it important to document all life on earth? “Biodiversity is about the totality of things,” explains Dr. Knapp. By identifying species and the relationships between them, taxonomy aims to understand “how nature's wild, wonderful diversity is generated.”

First published illustration of an African Goliath Beetle. From Illustrations of Natural History (1770-82), by Dru Drury.

Today, that diversity is sorely threatened. More than 40% of the evaluated amphibian species, 30% of the evaluated invertebrate species, 21% of evaluated fish and reptile species, 26% of known mammal species, and 68% of the evaluated plant species are threatened with extinction. “It is key to identify species at risk so we can take action accordingly,” emphasized Dr. Rafe Brown, curator in charge of Herpetology at the University of Kansas.

The inherent problem, however, is that we can’t know what species to protect until we know what species there are. We cannot predict how biodiversity loss will affect an ecosystem until we identify all the players in that ecosystem, their roles, and relationships. We must start by illuminating the unknown.

Butterflies from De uitlandsche kapellen voorkomende in de drie waereld-deelen, Asia, Africa en America (1779-82), by Cramer, Pieter. This is the first treatise on Lepidoptera to use the then-newly developed binomial classification system by Linnaeus. This work contains hundreds of "original descriptions" and many new-to-science Lepidoptera species.

A complete catalog of species can help scientists determine if conservation initiatives are focusing on and prioritizing the right environments and species or if efforts should be directed elsewhere. “We know we're losing biodiversity at a rate that is 1,000 times faster than we should be, and if we're going to stop that hemorrhaging of species, we have to know what the species are and most important, where they are. This is a vital first step in making decisions about where to act," explains Dr. Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University.

You can help!

Effective conservation and appropriate responses to environmental changes relies on a complete biodiversity picture. Obtaining a comprehensive species catalog hinges on the work of taxonomists, who in turn are dependent on the knowledge held within the pages of historic taxonomic literature. 

We rely on donations from users like you to help grow our library and keep it free and open. As you think about your holiday giving, we hope you’ll consider making a tax-deductible donation to help save biodiversity.

Stay tuned for more posts detailing the critical roles BHL and historic literature play in understanding past extinctions and saving earth’s biodiversity.

Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager
Biodiversity Heritage Library

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Latino Natural History: Recognizing the contributions of Latino naturalists

While there are plenty of accounts on the natural history of Latin America, many of the best-known stories are from the point of view of outsiders, especially those from the age of extensive European exploration. The new exhibition “Latino Natural History” aims to turn the focus to a few notable naturalists of Latin American origin, and recognizing the work they did to further the study of the world’s flora and fauna.

Some of the featured naturalists, like Puerto Rican American ornithologist and artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes, were greatly celebrated by their peers and beyond. However, many of the remaining naturalists would go unrecognized in their lifetime, or over time their names would be buried under those of more well-known scientists. The reasons for the imbalance in recognition were as varied as the countries these scientists are all from.
Flora Mexicana wasn't published until nearly 70 years after Mociño's death.
For some of these naturalists, political turmoil would keep their work from being published in their lifetime. For example, José Mociño was a Mexican botanist and explorer who joined the Royal Botanical Expedition to New Spain directed by Spain’s Martin de Sessé y Lacasta. Mociño’s work during the expedition was quite extensive; he would eventually be assigned to oversee the remaining tasks of the expedition when Sessé died in 1808. However, his political affiliations during the Napoleonic Wars would result in his exile, and the expedition’s findings would go unpublished until decades after Mociño’s death. Instead, what the scientific community had to rely on were the accounts of Prussian explorer Alexander Humboldt and his travels through Latin America.
Cucurbita moschata | Stahl Collection, U.S. National Herbarium, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution
Others would be hindered by a lack of financial support. Puerto Rican naturalist Agustín Stahl is best known for the time and effort he put into the study of Puerto Rico’s flora. His Studies of the flora of Puerto Rico  was the first detailed work on the subject. However, the watercolors which were meant to be included in the six installments would remain unpublished because Stahl didn’t have the funds to print them. As a result, Studies remains incomplete, but today Stahl is recognized as one of the fathers of Puerto Rican natural science. He is even commonly attributed as the man who introduced the idea of decorating Christmas trees to the island.
Cyathea albidopaleata. Collector: Ynes Mexia | Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
The exhibition also features Latinos and Latinas who overcame personal obstacles to become successful in their fields. Ynes Mexia, Mexican-American plant collector, didn’t join the scientific community until well into middle age. Mexia’s life would start in Washington, D.C., and would take her to Texas, and Mexico, where she would eventually marry and settle down. Along the way she’d experience personal struggles with anxiety which she wouldn’t overcome until she left Mexico and settled in San Francisco, California. There she’d discover an interest in botany, and her prolific plant collection resulted in the discovery of 500 new species.

Although the careers of these Latinos and Latinas were often met with obstacles, it’s not to say it was all doom and gloom. Several of the naturalists in the exhibition were members of the greater scientific community and were well-respected by their contemporaries. Many of the scientists even had new species and museums named after them. Although some of these names may be unfamiliar thanks to the test of time and selective history, their contributions to the world of natural science are undeniable.

The exhibition is by no means comprehensive, but I hope you enjoy discovering all the stories we’ve featured here.

Adriana Marroquin
Digital Exhibits Coordinator

Biodiversity Heritage Library

Friday, December 12, 2014

We Need Books to Save Biodiversity

This month, we’re publishing a series of blog posts outlining the importance of biodiversity literature, made available for free and open access through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, to today’s scientific research and conservation initiatives. With your help, we can help save biodiversity. 

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is revolutionizing the way scientific research is conducted by providing free and open access to biodiversity literature and archives representing over 500 years of scientific exploration, research, and discovery.

What’s so special about Historic Literature and Archives? 

Historic literature and archival fieldbooks provide information that is critical to studying biodiversity. These documents are replete with data detailing the morphology, phylogeny and ethology of earth’s species. In many cases, this literature constitutes the only available knowledge for rare, endangered, and extinct species.

The Mascarene Parrot. Now Extinct. Rothschild, Lionel Walter Rothschild. Extinct Birds (1907).
In addition to species data, published books and fieldbooks capture ecosystem profiles, distribution maps, inter-dependency observations, and geological and climatic records. They also provide an historical perspective on species abundance, habitat alteration, and human exploration, culture and discovery.

This information has a multitude of applications in modern-day science. It is used to populate species databases and datasets that inform present-day research. It not only allows scientists to study biodiversity, but also to save it by enabling new species identification and facilitating the development of holistic conservation methods that integrate all of the factors necessary for a species’ wellbeing into its overall protection strategy. Furthermore, the discoveries captured in historic literature provide the foundations upon which contemporary models, theories and disciplines are based.

Cane Toad. From the first published account of the flora and fauna of North America: Catesby, Mark. Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1729-47).

Sadly, much of these publications and archival content are available in only a few select libraries in the developed world.

“Science is all about disseminating knowledge and building upon what has come before, yet so much of our knowledge of plants and animals has remained inaccessible to those who could make use of it,” laments Dr. John Sullivan, an evolutionary biologist with the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia and Cornell University. “This has been a big part of the ‘taxonomic impediment.’”

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is Alleviating the Taxonomic Impediment 

The Biodiversity Heritage Library boasts a collection of over 45 million pages from over 150,000 volumes and has served more than 3.5 million people in nearly every country since its launch in 2007. Additionally, BHL has made over 93,000 of the illustrations within its collection available in Flickr, which in turn have been viewed over 80 million times. Services such as taxonomic name finding tools, custom PDF downloads, and open APIs allow users to easily locate and reuse these resources.

“BHL is radically changing the status quo and democratizing access to knowledge about biodiversity,” lauds Dr. Sullivan. “Now anybody in the world has instant access to the original species description in a couple of clicks!”

The first published illustration of the Duck-billed Platypus. Shaw, George. The Naturalist's Miscellany, or Coloured figures of natural objects, Vol. 10 (1799).

Of Global Importance 

Open access to biodiversity data is beneficial on a global scale, advancing scientific fields more quickly and connecting scientists and their research more efficiently than ever before, especially in developing countries with traditionally limited access to vital resources. “[The Biodiversity Heritage Library] has done an enormous amount to enhance the capacity of developing countries to undertake taxonomic research on their biota,” asserts Dr. Dai Herbert, a malacologist at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum in South Africa.

The repatriation of knowledge can also help countries better assess, monitor, and protect their native biodiversity. Recognizing that “identifying the factors that shape biodiversity locally helps to preserve them better in the future,” the United Nations, through the Convention on Biological Diversity, requires every signatory country to “identify and monitor the biodiversity of the organisms within its borders.” Thanks to BHL, countries now have access to information about and catalogs of the species within their boundaries, which can be used to form the basis of national biodiversity indexes and direct local conservation efforts.

Insects. From Biologia Centrali-Americana. As this work contains all of the known information about the biodiversity of Mexico and Central America at the time of its publication, this title is still fundamental to the study of the biota of this region.

Help Save Biodiversity 

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is helping scientists save biodiversity, which in turn sustains our well-being as humans. “We need biodiversity to satisfy basic needs like food, drinking water, fuel, shelter, and medicine...Ecosystems provide services such as pollination, seed dispersal, climate regulation, water purification, nutrient cycling, control of agricultural pests” and the “regulation and control of infectious diseases.

Coffea arabica, which accounts for 75–80 percent of the world's coffee production. It is also believed to be the first species of coffee to be cultivated. Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (1883-1914).

As we face a global biodiversity crisis, “with the future of many...species and habitats at risk,” unfettered access to biodiversity information has never been more important.

We rely on donations from users like you to help grow our library and keep it free and open. As you think about your holiday giving, we hope you’ll consider making a tax-deductible donation to help save biodiversity.

Stay tuned for more posts detailing the critical roles BHL and historic literature play in discovering new species, understanding past extinctions, and saving earth’s biodiversity.

Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager
Biodiversity Heritage Library

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Image Loading Restored

Services at Internet Archive have been restored after an outage due to a storm. BHL images are now loading properly. Thanks for your patience!

Using the Salamander Brain to Understand Human Behavior

What can a salamander brain tell us about human behavior?

A lot more than you might think, discovered Lou Morgan, an independent researcher who has been studying the physiological underpinnings of human behavior for 30 years.

Lou Morgan
While Morgan's undergraduate education focused on mathematics, a history of familial psychological problems fueled an interest in understanding the underlying mechanisms of human psychology.

In the 1950s, Morgan began taking the first of many college psychology courses. These courses, however, focused largely on human thought and behavior subsequent to their manifestation. Morgan wanted to know about the physiological structures that led to this behavior.

Drawing from his background in mathematics, Morgan decided to approach his investigation by breaking a complex system down into more simplistic elements. “The kind of math I liked best was the deduction of complex structures from a few simple axioms,” explains Morgan. “Think Euclid's geometry. So I approached psychology looking for the basic principles which underlie our behavior.”

Morgan’s search led him to the study of neuroanatomy, which in turn led him to C. Judson Herrick's book, The Brain of the Tiger Salamander (1948).

The Tiger Salamander. Herrick, C. Judson. The Brain of the Tiger Salamander (1948).

The Brain of the Tiger Salamander summarizes 50 years of Herrick’s published research on the vertebrate nervous system, “as revealed in generalized form in the amphibians.”

“Herrick's book has become central to my attempt to understand human behavior because it contains an immense amount of data which has parallels in the subcortical portion of the human brain,” articulates Morgan. “Humans can be seen as salamanders with a cortex.”

In the 1960s, American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean proposed an evolutionary model for the vertebrate forebrain suggesting that humans have a “reptilian brain” at our core. Modern comparative evolution, however, has found this theory to be outdated, given the presence of a structure known as the dorsal ventricular ridge (DVR) in reptiles and birds.

The DVR receives ascending auditory and visual projections and is present in bird and reptile brains. Though absent in mammals, the DVR has been postulated to be homologous to parts of the mammalian isocortex. In humans, the isocortex (also called neocortex) is the largest part of the cerebral cortex, and directs such functions as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language. Amphibians, like humans, do not have a DVR, making their brains, and not reptile brains, a more apt comparison for human neuroanatomy.

The Tiger Salamander Brain. Details about the structures depicted on Morgan's website. Herrick, C. Judson. The Brain of the Tiger Salamander (1948).

In order to help others explore early research on neuroanatomy, and provide a platform through which to discuss modern theories from the field, Morgan created a website to host a downloaded (from BHL) and partially edited version of Herrick’s book. The website, also entitled Brain of the Tiger Salamander, links to several of Morgan’s other websites detailing subcortical function, human behavior, and the endocrine system.

“I think we humans understand ourselves very poorly, and part of the problem is that we concentrate our attention on the cortical, cognitive, aspects of our behavior,” muses Morgan. “Herrick's book offers a window into the subcortical aspects of our lives.”

However, like all scientific pursuits, the field of neuroanatomy is still evolving, and while Herrick’s research provides a good foundation for understanding the basics of the vertebrate nervous system, it also has severe limitations.

“Herrick's Brain of the Tiger Salamander is a marvelous piece of work, but it's outdated. Most importantly, it does not give any consideration to neurotransmitters or the endocrine system,” Morgan points out. “Our knowledge of neurotransmitters is still evolving. The possibility of their very existence was discovered by Otto Loewi only in 1921. They were still a new concept during Herrick's time. Similarly, modern endocrinology began with Arnold Berthold in 1849 and is still a very active field of research. I suppose Herrick was aware of the current research while he was working, but there is no mention of either neurotransmitters or hormones in The Brain of the Tiger Salamander. He probably had his hands full with his neuroanatomical research.”

The Tiger Salamander Brain. Details about the structures depicted on Morgan's website. Herrick, C. Judson. The Brain of the Tiger Salamander (1948).

Morgan’s newest website, Herrick Update, attempts to “supplement Herrick's presentation of salamander neuroanatomy with information which may be relevant to salamanders' neurotransmitters and hormones,” which may in turn provide insight into human behavior.

In the future, Morgan plans to concentrate his study of human behavior around addiction, and the part of our nervous system most involved in that behavior: the Nucleus Accumbens Septi (NAcc). Interestingly, this research may relate quite strongly to Morgan’s salamander research. The NAcc may in fact be the most prominent and clearly defined part of the Lamprey Basal Ganglia. The Lamprey brain is very similar to that of the amphibian, and thus Morgan began his attempt to develop a model of subcortical function with an investigation of the lamprey nervous system.

As humans continue to progress in our understanding of neuroanatomy, and the underlying physical processes that drive our actions and behaviors, Morgan’s research into Herrick’s work demonstrates once again how intrinsically tied modern science is to past discoveries. Thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, this historic knowledge is available to everyone, everywhere, fueling continued understanding of life on earth and what it means to be human.

See Herrick’s original work in BHL, digitized by the MBLWHOI Library. Explore a partially edited version of the work on Morgan’s website. Learn more about how neurotransmitters and hormones affect neuroanatomy and view a model of subcortical function in Morgan’s two recent websites.

Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager
Biodiversity Heritage Library

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Early Women In Science: Trekking Through Nature, Trailblazing Their Way Through History

The sixteen women featured in the “Early Women In Science” exhibition are each extraordinary for unique reasons.  One trait they all share is that they were doing work in scientific fields reserved for men. They sometimes had to fight for recognition of their work—or went completely unrecognized for some of their major contributions. For instance, Maria Emma Gray (1787-1876) was a talented natural history illustrator. She not only contributed to the work of her husband, zoologist John Edward Gray, but also saw him through his nervous breakdown, eventually helping him to work again. Despite her contributions to his studies, however, she is not credited in his works. 

Illustration by Maria Emma Gray, from Figures of Molluscous Animals, Selected from Various Authors. Etched for the Use of Students by Maria Emma Gray, vol. 2, 1859 | Smithsonian Biodiversity Heritage Library
Even when the male scientific community did praise the contributions of their feminine peers, many of the earliest women scientists remained resistant to any form of boasting or taking credit, since that was considered unseemly in women. Not so with bold scientists like Ynes Enriquetta, Julietta Mexia, or Alice Eastwood, who rightfully took credit for their amazing accomplishments.

Alice told her contemporary, Agnes Chase (agrostologist, 1869-1963): “the most proper [honor] is that officially the name of the Herbarium is the Alice Eastwood Herbarium of the California Academy of Sciences" since she built it herself "with no help" from 1912 to 1930.And in truth, Alice did manage this effort with little help. Furthermore, prior to the new herbarium's construction, Alice risked her life to save the Academy's collections during the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Despite fires in the surrounding buildings and a caved-in stairwell, Alice climbed into the previous herbarium and managed to save the most irreplaceable of the herbarium specimens with a rope and pulley and the help of one other man.

Alice Eastwood collecting Festuca eastwoodae grass, courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences Archives

These women were brave. Not only did they enter their respective fields at a time when women were meant to remain in the domestic sphere, but they often solitarily braved harsh wilderness conditions to explore, observe, and collect flora, fauna and other specimens.  Katherine Brandegee (1844-1920) was a botanist, and in her journeys she survived shipwrecks, seclusion with bears, wolves and coyotes, and encounters with potentially dangerous men in the uninhabited areas she trekked. All the while, collecting and preserving specimens, rather than her own safety, were her primary concerns.

Many of the women in the exhibit shared a courage, a sense of adventure, and a love of nature that allowed them to push through the difficulties—whether physical or mental—of becoming scientists.Some were self-taught, while others were accepted to prestigious schools. Most of them were given honorary degrees and other awards. Some, like Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894), were multi-talented, engaging not only in scientific pursuits, but other artistic endeavors like fiction writing.Furthermore, many of these women demonstrated exceptional foresight, warning that neglect and abuse of our natural environment would result in dire consequences. They were right.

Enjoy the fascinating stories, illustrations and books from and about “Early Women In Science” in our new exhibit here.

Laurel Byrnes
Digital Exhibition Coordinator
Biodiversity Heritage Library