Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day: Florence Bascom, Geologist

Florence Bascom became fascinated with geology while taking a driving tour with her father (president of Williams College) and a geologist friend of his. An unremarkable genesis for an earth science career, except that the driving tour must have been done by horse and carriage: Florence was born in 1862.

To put this in perspective: In the United States, 1862 was the second year of the Civil War, and one of the bloodiest: Shiloh, the Seven Days, Antietam. The Gatling gun and the iron-clad ship were the big military innovations.

President Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. He also signed into law the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Acts, which provided for the first transcontinental railroad, thus shaping the American West.

It was the year of Lady Audley's Secret, Les Miserables, and Salammbo. Thoreau died at 44. Alice in Wonderland was written. Gustave Klimt was born (same day as Florence Bascom). The Albert Memorial and Westminster Bridge were opened. Princess Alice, Queen Victoria's daughter, married Prince Louis of Hesse. Her daughter would become the last Empress of Russia.

In this world, higher education for women was a rarity. Nevertheless, Florence Bascom earned a BA and then an MS from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She became the first woman to be granted a PhD from Johns Hopkins.* She had to attend lectures behind a screen; women are not yet admitted to the university.

Then she started teaching at Bryn Mawr College, establishing their world-class geology department and training many of the great female geologists of the early twentieth century. Bascom is quoted as frequently saying that she didn't want to be the only woman geologist. She did her best to make sure she was not.

Often, though, she was the only woman in the room or in the field. Her list of firsts is impressive:

* first woman geologist hired by the USGS
* first woman to present a scientific paper at the Geological Society of Washington
* first woman officer of the Geological Society of America

Florence Bascom isn't important just for being the first woman. She made major contributions to earth science. She invented techniques that used microscopic analysis in the study of oil-bearing rocks. She was a major pioneer in igneous petrology. Her analysis of the complex orogeny of the folded-and-faulted Appalachians is still the basis for understanding certain aspects of Pennsylvania geology.

Nor was she merely an armchair geologist; she emphasized the importance of fieldwork. She also strongly encouraged independent thinking in her students, which is how she and two of her former students became involved in the Wissahickon controversy, the first all-female scientific controversy. They conducted their disagreement with scholarly courtesy. (Yes, Florence was right, although recent discoveries have fine-tuned the picture.)

Even after being acknowledged as one of the top 100 geologists in the United States, she continued learning. In 1906 she visited Germany to study theories of petrology. What she learned there helped her understand the formation of the Appalachian Mountains.

After her death, this observation was found among her papers:

The fascination of any search after the truth lies not in the attainment...but in the pursuit, where all the powers of the mind and character are brought into play and are absorbed by the task. One feels oneself in contact with something that is infinite and one finds joy that is beyond expression in sounding the abyss of science and the secrets of the infinite mind.

*One other woman had earned a PhD, but the university did not actually grant the degree until 1926. Male chauvinism or incompetent paperwork? You decide.

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