Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Happy Ada Lovelace Day: Roxie Laybourne

Today, as many of you know, is Ada Lovelace Day, on which bloggers from around the world are celebrating women's contributions to technology.

My pick is someone whose work fell outside the temporal boundaries of my dissertation on women scientists working in natural history collections, but she very much could have been the centerpiece had I extended my coverage into the 21st century.

Roxie Laybourne, detail from a photo by Chip Clark

I'd like, in short, to bring your attention to Roxie Laybourne (1912-2003), who pioneered the field of feather forensics. I learned of Roxie when I was rummaging through the Smithsonian Institution Archives; Smithsonian historian Pamela Henson showed me transcripts of her interviews with Laybourne.

Roxie Laybourne, ca. 1944, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution on the Flickr Commons.

Laybourne's scientific innovations came to light again recently when a plane landed in the Hudson River after a bird strike. You can read more about feather forensics on the Smithsonian website, and get to know the scientist herself better in an article in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. Be sure to check out the article to learn more about Laybourne's four rules of success:

1. Share your knowledge.
2. Keep your mouth shut.
3. Keep an open mind. Keep it your whole life.
4. Take care of your body.

In addition to pioneering tools and techniques related to feather identification--techniques that helped investigators solve the mysteries of airplane crashes and even, I believe, a murder--Laybourne also invented the cloacascope, a device for identifying the sex of whooping cranes; it has also been used to sex penguins.

My tubs of photocopies from the archives are at the moment inaccessible, so I'm going from memory here when I say that my favorite story about Laybourne didn't involve birds at all, but rather her recently dead beloved horse, a large hole she dug herself when she was no spring chicken, equine rigor mortis, and eventually a chainsaw.

I never had the chance to meet Laybourne, but I admire the way she put technology to novel uses that have saved human and avian lives by averting bird strikes on airplanes and furthering (thanks to the cloacascope) breeding programs for endangered species.

4 comments:

Auto Ethnographer said...

Thanks for this! It's an amazing story and *fantastic* photo (actually, both of the photos are great, but the color one most especially).

What Now? said...

Leslie, thank you for introducing me to an amazing woman; I really enjoyed reading the article and taking to heart her four rules for success.

Jeff Mather said...

What a great post. Thanks!

portsample said...

Great post, thanks. Roxie taught me to skin birds in the 1970s when I was going to high school outside of DC. She was an amazing lady and likely influenced my decision to go into the biological sciences.