Recovering American Women’s History

Dr. Elizabeth Harmon on mining the Smithsonian Institution collections for stories of women in science

By Google Arts & Culture

words by Dr. Elizabeth Harmon — Digital Curator, Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

Surfacing Women in Science in Smithsonian History

The history of women in science at the Smithsonian tells a national story about the struggles that women have faced as they fought for full inclusion and equity in the workplace. 

Postcard of the Smithsonian Castle (June 21, 1921) by B.S. Reynolds Co. Washington, DCOriginal Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 84, Folder 25

Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution is one of the United States’ oldest national museums and one of the nation’s first scientific institutions. Across the centuries, women have worked as scientists and science educators at the National Museum of Natural History, the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and the Museum Conservation Institute

Portrait of officers of American Association for the Advancement of Science, including Rev. James Owen Dorsey and Mrs. Erminnie A. Smith, 1885 (1885)Original Source: Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives NAA INV 02872300, Photo Lot 33.

In the 1970s, two historians of science, Dr. Margaret W. Rossiter and Dr. Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, published foundational scholarship on the history of women in science. As they laid the groundwork for a new field of research, they identified some of the first women in science in the United States by name and explored their impact on science institutions and scientific practice. 

Their research inspired historians and archivists at the Smithsonian to mine collections and continue to recover the history of women in science, such as Erminnie A. Smith (1836-1886), an anthropologist affiliated with the Smithsonian, who served as the first woman officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

SAO Staff (1941) by Johnston, Earl SOriginal Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7005, Box 186, Folder 4

Today, Smithsonian researchers are working with recently digitized collections and using data science to further recover the history of women in science at the Smithsonian. While archival records and stories exist in abundance about the important early contributions of men in leadership at the Smithsonian, it remains much harder to locate historical records about the careers and achievements of women.

This photo of Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory staff in 1941 features Associate Plant Physiologist Florence Meier Chase (1902-1978). One of the first women to begin working in the sciences at the Smithsonian with a Ph.D., Dr. Chase studied the effects of sunlight on plants. Dr. Chase published monographs on ultraviolet light and algae, and she was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an honorary member of the Washington Botanical Society. 

Louisa Bernie Gallaher Models Dress (1880) by United States National Museum Photographic LaboratoryOriginal Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 003, Image No. MAH-2301

Archivists at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, for example, are in the process of restoring the professional legacy of scientific photographer Louisa Bernie Gallaher (1858-1917). Joining the Smithsonian in 1878, Gallaher was one of the first women to work in science at the Smithsonian, and newspaper articles reveal that her colleagues considered her a leader in the field of scientific photography. Until recently, though, most of her work has been incorrectly attributed to her boss. While her boss championed her work, the misattribution has actually been due to assumptions made by staff and researchers in later years about who was responsible for the department’s work. 

Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative

To help continue the recovery of histories of women in science, the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, Because of Her Story, is creating, disseminating, and amplifying the historical record of the accomplishments of American women. The initiative is one of the country’s most ambitious undertakings to research, collect, document, display, and share the compelling story of women in American history. With a digital-first approach, Because of Her Story is piloting using data science, crowdsourcing, and digital curator positions to scale up representation across the collections of the Smithsonian’s nineteen museums and galleries, nine research centers, libraries, archives, and zoo. 

Dr. Vicki Funk, senior research botanist and curator of botany, inspects a weed specimen sent to the Museum from Australia (2009) by Adrian James TestaOriginal Source: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Image no. 2009-13100.

In 2018, Vicki Funk (1947-2019), a botanist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, worked with staff at the Smithsonian Institution Archives to launch a formal effort to systematically identify and research the lives and work of women in science at the Smithsonian. 

The inspired team crowdsourced the names of women in science from current staff and began to identify key historical figures. With the support of the American Women’s History Initiative, the Smithsonian hired a digital curator to continue the work of ensuring that the role of women in science in U.S. history is acknowledged, accurate, and empowering.

Mary Agnes Chase on an expedition to Brazil in 1929 (1929)Original Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 229, Image no. 2009-2576-000001

As part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, historians, archivists, and science professionals are researching, documenting, and publishing resources about the history of women in science at the Smithsonian. Researchers want to amplify stories about women like Mary Agnes Chase (1869-1963), an honorary curator of grasses at the Smithsonian. Chase was the foremost grass specialist of her time, yet as researchers have shown, she was forced to finance her own field research when she was barred from all-male research trips in the early twentieth century. 

Sophie Lutterlough at a Microscope (1983) by Harold E DoughertyOriginal Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 371, Image no. 2009-3239-000001

As of winter 2021, Smithsonian staff have identified over 500 women who have worked in the sciences across its museums and research centers from its founding to the present. Now researchers can mine Smithsonian collections, which include over 155 million objects and specimens, as well as library and archival materials, for more information about women like Sophie Lutterlough (1910-2009), likely the first African American woman to work in the sciences at the Smithsonian when she was hired as an insect preparator in 1957.

GAC Browser

Recently, the Smithsonian has teamed up with Google Arts & Culture as the lead sponsor of the Open Access initiative, to use machine learning to mine its collections metadata — the information that describes and structures the collections —  to uncover stories about Smithsonian women in science. Using a structured data set containing information about women who have worked in science at the Smithsonian, Google ran machine learning algorithms to identify “named entities” (such as people, places, or dates) in both the Smithsonian’s collections metadata and the texts of Smithsonian annual reports. Then, they created a network view to allow relationships between these entities to surface in visual form.

Taxonomy Card (1911-08-17) by Rathbun, M. J.Original Source: Department of Invertebrate Zoology, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Catalog No. USNM 43175, Accession no. 053131.

As Smithsonian researchers browsed among the “nodes” in the network to make connections between people and places across the collections metadata, they were able to discover an exciting connection between three of the earliest women in science at the Smithsonian: Mary Jane Rathbun, Serena Katherine “Violet” Dandridge, and Dr. Harriet Richardson Searle. 

The key piece of evidence was this taxonomy card detailing a 1911 collecting trip to Casco Bay, Maine, which surfaced among the collections metadata relating to Mary Jane Rathbun, who was likely the first woman curator at the Smithsonian.

Page from 1911-1912 Division of Marine Invertebrates Curators’ Annual Report describing a research trip to Maine (1911/1912)Original Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 158, Box 42, Folder 4.

For a month in August 1911, Mary Jane Rathbun and scientific illustrator Serena Katherine “Violet” Dandridge travelled to South Harpswell, Maine, and Woodshole, Massachusetts, to research the colors of marine animals for an upcoming museum exhibition. The taxonomy card identified in the machine learning experiment also reveals that Dr. Harriet Richardson Searle, a researcher in the invertebrate zoology department, identified some of the specimens that Rathbun and Dandridge collected. 

Mary Jane Rathbun and Waldo LaSalle Schmitt (Unknown, perhaps 1920s)Original Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7231, Box 119

Mary Jane Rathbun (1860-1943) worked as a curator of Crustacea at the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) from 1886 to 1940. She began her career at the Smithsonian as a copyist in the Department of Marine Invertebrates and eventually became a curator. She was a prolific writer and researcher who is best known for her four-volume series on the crabs of America. According to colleagues, in 1914, Rathbun resigned her paid position so that her salary could go towards hiring an assistant to aid in her work. She worked unpaid for the remainder of her career. 

Portrait of Serena Katherine DandridgeOriginal Source: Bedinger and Dandridge Family Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

Serena Katherine “Violet” Dandridge (1878-1956) worked as a scientific illustrator at the Smithsonian circa 1903 to 1915. Dandridge supported the suffrage movement and developed her interest in art and nature throughout her life.

Graduation photograph of Harriet Richardson from 1896 (1896)Original Source: Archives and Special Collections, Vassar College Library, Ref 3.1186

Dr. Harriet Richardson Searle (1874-1958) worked as a collaborator and later a research associate at the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) circa 1896 to 1913. Dr. Searle earned a Ph.D. in zoology from George Washington University, and her research and publications focused on isopod systematics.

Multi-Dimensional Feature Clustering

During the Smithsonian’s 175-year history, women have led some of its most exciting scientific research and developed some of its major collections. As researchers seek to amplify that history, this experiment is just the beginning. The American Women’s History Initiative will continue to mine Smithsonian collections, as well as the metadata that describes and structures those collections, to recover stories about American women deeply embedded in Smithsonian records and history.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps