Friday, January 26, 2007

Field Museum's Women in Science

The Field Natural History Museum in Chicago has interviews with thirteen women scientists in their employ, who work in fields ranging from the biological sciences to geology. They share their thoughts on both their own research and their experiences as women in science.

The site also profiles two pioneers from the museum's past, explorer Delia Akeley (1875-1970) who discovered new African animal species, and botanist Margery Carlson (1892-1985) who collected plant samples in South America and Europe and was a professor of botany at Northwestern. They both had their share of adventures.

From the Field Museum profile of Delia Akeley, on collecting an elephant specimen:

"Scarcely breathing, and with legs trembling so I could hardly stand, I waited for the elephant to move forward," she wrote in her book "All True!" "Dimly through the mist the dark shape came slowly from behind the bush, exposing a splendid pair of tusks and a great flapping ear which was my target. With nerves keyed to the point of action I fired, and the first elephant I shot at fell lifeless among the dew-wet ferns . . . He was a splendid elephant, standing ten feet ten inches tall at the shoulders and carrying 180 pounds of ivory. In his back was a great festering wound caused by a poisonous spear. The iron blade had worked its way into his flesh to his rib and he must have suffered agonies."
I'm not particularly fond of this method of "collecting" animals, but there is no doubt Akeley did her job well.

From the GWIS profile of Margery Carlson:

An energetic and adventurous woman, Dr. Carlson’s primary interaction with Field Museum was through her plant collecting program in Mexico and Central America in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Using a station wagon or truck-camper as both vehicle and motel, Margery, together with her companion Kate Staley, was able to reach remote areas in southern Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica. Each expedition took several months and came close to or exceeded 10,000 miles of travel.

What was especially remarkable about Margery’s field trips was that both she and her companion were gray-haired ladies embarking on trips that would challenge someone half their age. The trips were not without adventures and minor mishaps. One expedition ended with the truck smashed at the bottom of a canyon but with the two women only slightly injured. Another adventure Margery loved to recount was the time she and Kate were eating lunch along the side of the road in northern Mexico, when they found themselves face-to-face with two men brandishing machetes and demanding money. Sizing up the situation quickly (these were two poor farmers and not dangerous bandits), Margery proceeded to admonish them in Spanish: "Don’t you realize you could have scared us to death? And if that had happened you could never go to heaven!", whereupon she invited them to have some lunch — which they did.

Two amazing women!

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