Florence Bascom (1862–1945) was a true pioneer in geoscience: her PhD work furthered our understanding of the origins and formation of the Appalachian Mountains, and she geologically mapped a good portion of the United States. She was both a professional geologist, and an academic and teacher. Amongst many other firsts, Bascom was the first woman to be hired by the US Geological Survey in 1896 and the first woman to present a paper at the Geological Society of Washington in 1901. She was also Associate Editor of The American Geologist journal from 1896-1905, and the first female officer of the Geological Society of America (elected as Vice President in 1930).

Her work was so respected by her colleagues that in 1906 the first edition of the not-entirely-accurately named American Men of Science rated her among the top one hundred leading geologists in the USA. The establishment clearly wasn’t ready for Florence Bascom, nor her trowelblazing legacy: later editions of Men of Science included many of Bascom’s female students, and yet it stuck with that title until 1971!

Florence Bascom looks out over Yellowstone Lake (Wyoming) from Fishing Rock in 1915. We can only imagine what she is thinking, but it probably something to do with rhyolitic lava flows. Image used with the kind permission of Smith College.

Florence Bascom looks out over Yellowstone Lake (Wyoming) from Fishing Rock in 1915. We can only imagine what she is thinking, but it’s probably something to do with rhyolitic lava flows. Image used with the kind permission of the Sophia Smith Collection (Smith College).

Florence Bascom was born on the 14th July 1862 in Williamstown, Massachusetts to Professor John Bascom and Emma (Curtiss) Bascom, suffragist and teacher. Her parents were active supporters of women’s rights and encouraged the young Florence to pursue her university education. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin1 with a BA in 1882 and BS in 1884, and Masters in Geology in 1887. In 1893, despite a College President who opposed the co-education of women, and despite having to sit behind a screen in lectures, she became the first woman to be granted a PhD from John Hopkins University.

She started her academic career with a number of teaching positions before settling at Bryn Mawr College, where she founded their Department of Geology in 1901. In the first third of the 20th Century, Bascom’s graduate programme, considered to be one of the most rigorous in the country and with a strong focus on both lab and fieldwork, trained the most American women geologists. Her students didn’t just graduate, they often went on to successful careers themselves. In 1937, 8 out of 11 of the women who were Fellows of the Geological Society of America were graduates of Bascom’s course at Bryn Mawr College.

Florence Bascom (the only one not styling out the pointy hat look, second from front) on a field trip -- possibly to the Grand Canyon -- with students in 1906. Image used with the kind permission of Smith College.

Florence Bascom (the only one not styling out the pointy hat look, second from front) on a field trip — possibly to the Grand Canyon — with students in 1906. Image used with the kind permission of the Sophia Smith Collection (Smith College).

The roll-call of Bascom alumna is immense and included (brace yourselves!): glacial geomorphologist Ida Olgilvie, petrologists Anna Jonas and Eleanor Bliss (who would go on to challenge Bascom’s work in later years; Bascom prevailed!), Isabel Fothergill, Dorothy Wyckoff, crystallographer Mary Porter, Katherine Fowler, Louise Kingsley, paleontologist Julia Gardner, Maria Stadnichenko, Laura Martin and Anna Heitonen [ed: POSTS NEEDED!]. As Bascom herself said:

“I have always claimed there was no merit in being the only one of a kind…I have considerable pride in the fact that some of the best work done in geology today by women, ranking with that done by men, has been done by my students…”—Florence Bascom, 1932

In addition to her full time teaching position, Bascom maintained an active field research programme with the USGS, specialising in petrography. Her research on Piedmont geology is still used by geologists working in that region today.

Despite claims to the contrary, Florence Bascom wasn’t the first woman to be elected fellow of the Geological Society of America, nor was she the first woman to earn a PhD in Geology (that was palaeontologist Marie Emilee Holmes; POST NEEDED!). But her list of firsts is so long, her scientific achievements so many, and her legacy in the training of a whole generation of trowelblazers so great, that striking these from the list barely makes a difference. On top of all this, Florence Bascom was SPOT-ON when it comes to describing why so many of us do what we do:

“The fascination of any search after truth lies not in the attainment…but in the pursuit, where all the powers of the mind and are absorbed in the task. One feels oneself in contact with something that is infinite and one finds a joy that is beyond expression in ‘sounding the abyss of science’ and the secrets of the infinite mind”—Florence Bascom, 1928

Florence Bascom – totally awesome, yes, but definitely not one of a kind. And that is a legacy she, quite rightly, was proud of.

 

Written by Lisa-Marie Shillito (@ArchaeologyLisa on Twitter) who blogs at http://castlesandcoprolites.blogspot.co.uk/

Edited by Tori

A huge thank you to Nanci Young, Amy Hague and especially Nichole Calero in the Smith College Special Collections for all of their help and generosity in supplying the wonderful images of Bascom in action (all photos from the Bascom Papers in the Sophia Smith Collections). Thanks also to Mary Markey at the Smithsonian Institution Archives for granting us permission to use their portrait of Bascom.

And thank you to Hazel Gibson (@iamhazelgibson) as well for fact-checking my [Tori’s] reading of Bascom’s 1893 paper

1. A personal account of her time at the University of Wisconsin can be found online in the Wisconsin Magazine of History here [pp.300-308]. Although published in 1925, when Bascom was a highly respected geologist, her contribution is described as ‘a description of the University of Wisconsin in the late 19th century by the daughter of the university’s president’! Nevertheless, her love of all things geological shines through in her descriptions of the university grounds – “…which owe their unmatched natural advantages to prodigal unloading during the Ice Age”.

References

R.M. Clary & J.H. Wandersee (2007). Great expectations: Florence Bascom (1842-1945) and the education of early US women geologists. In Burek & Higgs (eds) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281, 123-135.

Jill S. Schneiderman (1997). A Life of Firsts: Florence Bascom. GSA Today, July 1997, pp. 8-9 [pdf]

F. Bascom (1893). The Structures, Origin, and Nomenclature of the Acid Volcanic Rocks of South Mountain. Journal of Geology 1: 813-832 [pdf] << intriguingly in this she refers to a section worked on by Charles Walcott – I wonder if she met Helen, Helena and Mary Vaux Walcott?

Written by Lisa-Marie Shillito (@ArchaeologyLisa on Twitter) who blogs at http://castlesandcoprolites.blogspot.co.uk/

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4 thoughts on “Florence Bascom

  1. G whaley says:

    Hidden history finally comes to light

  2. Alice Repsher Kelley says:

    So nice to see one of my geological heroines in your collection!
    I wield my trowel in the pursuit of geoarchaeology, but started out as one of the compass, hammer, and map crowd.
    Go Flossie!

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