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.

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.

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.

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Laurel Byrnes is a Virtual Marketing Volunteer for the Biodiversity Heritage Library at Smithsonian Libraries.