Sunday, September 03, 2006

Dissertation abstract

For the curious:

To Study, to Control, and to Love: Women Scientists in American Natural History Institutions, 1880-1950

Between 1880 and 1950, women entered American natural history institutions in significant numbers. In herbaria, natural history museums, arboreta, botanical gardens, and related institutions, women participated as patrons, curators, volunteers, club members, and in other significant roles. In fact, women managed collections and held high-ranking curatorial positions for several decades at institutions across the United States. However, despite their success, these women’s contributions are largely absent from the historiography of science and completely absent from science studies scholarship.

This dissertation does not merely recuperate and celebrate their lives, but rather uncovers patterns and discontinuities in their experiences as naturalists. Their experiences, taken collectively, provide us with a new context in which to comprehend the processes by which people came to understand varieties of “science” and the dissemination of scientific knowledge at the end of the nineteenth and during the first half of the twentieth century. These women found themselves ensconced in a matrix not only of research scientists, but of interested laypeople and supporters. Their founding of and participation in a broad spectrum of organizations provided the women with new spaces to showcase their expertise and, by extension, to recruit more women to pursue or otherwise support natural science.

Although most of the scientists discussed in this study were successful when measured by the standards of their disciplines, I argue that their greatest long-term contributions to science may have occurred outside the walls of their institutions. These women’s disciplinary contributions are eclipsed by their success in democratizing science through outreach activities. In spaces outside the museum, the women were allowed to experiment with the full range of their humanity, acting as both women and scientists in ways they may not have been allowed to do so inside their museums. In their lasting contributions to science—namely in their dedication to increasing the public understanding of science—women scientists were often more successful as women scientists rather than as women scientists.

Bloggy addendum

The primary women discussed in this dissertation include:
  • California Academy of Sciences botanist Alice Eastwood
  • Smithsonian carcinologist Mary Jane Rathbun
  • Freelance naturalist and taxidermist Martha Maxwell
  • Smithsonian agrostologist Agnes Chase
  • Smithsonian herpetologist Doris Mable Cochran
  • Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden founder Susana Bixby Bryant
  • Field collector and UC Berkeley museum founded Annie Alexander
  • San Diego Zoo director Belle Benchley

Women I hope to consider in the near future:
  • California Academy of Sciences ichthyologist Rosa Smith Eigenmann
  • California Academy of Sciences botanist Katharine Brandegee
  • Smithsonian entomologist Doris Holmes Blake
  • Smithsonian mammalogist Viola Schantz
  • Entrepreneurial collector Ynes Mexia
  • and many, many others

BTW, if you're interested in women in museums, you should also check out the blog The Museum Detective. Good stuff there!


Scrivener said...

That sounds really interesting. Just out of curiosity, is Theodora Kroeber someone you're at all interested in? Her work on the Ishi book came out of work at a natural history museum, didn't it?

Leslie M-B said...

Thanks for the tip, Scrivener! I've been looking mostly at the natural sciences instead of the social sciences, but I do reference a few anthropologists in the dissertation, esp. Alice Fletcher, who was associated with the Smithsonian. I'll keep Kroeber in mind for the future!

Unknown said...

Theodora was not formally employed by a museum, though she did draw on the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology--which is where Alfred Kroeber set Ishi up to live in 1911. Theodora did not know Alfred (or Ishi) at this time, but would later marry Alfred and write her great book on Ishi some four decades later.