Florence Bascom, rock star

Pioneering geologist Florence Bascom has been dubbed “The Stone Lady” by the United States National Park Service. But even though she was born on 14 July 1862, in Williamstown, in rural Massachusetts, surely it isn’t too much of a stretch to call her a rock star?

The editors at the Geological Society of America’s journal GSA Today obviously didn’t think so, as they titled their 1997 article on her, “Rock Stars – A life of firsts: Florence Bascom.”

As is true of so many women of her time who chose to have careers in science, it is tempting to focus on Bascom’s struggles in simply obtaining an education. But as an article published by the University of Illinois points out, as a scientist, she “pioneered the use of microscopes in the study of minerals and rocks” and “was accredited with a significant contribution to the understanding of the formation of the Appalachian mountain range through her studies in petrology [the scientific study of rocks and the conditions which influence their formation]”.

Her list of firsts is noteworthy. Although Bascom was the second woman to earn a PhD in geology in the United States, in 1893 (Mary Holmes earned a PhD in geology from the University of Michigan in 1888), hers came from prestigious Johns Hopkins University, where she was the school’s first female recipient.

In 1896 she was the first woman to be hired by the US Geological Survey; in 1901 she was the first woman to present a paper before the Geological Society of Washington; she was the first woman elected to the council of the GSA, in 1924; and she was the first female GSA officer (vice-president in 1930).

Her father, John Bascom, a professor at Williams College in Williamstown who became president of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was a supporter of women’s rights, and her mother, Emma Curtiss Bascom, was a women’s rights activist; both encouraged their daughter’s ambitions to go to college.

Women were admitted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1875, and Florence Bascom enrolled in the school two years later, although she, as with all the female students, had limited access to the library, gymnasium, classrooms and some events.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in arts and letters in 1882, and a bachelor’s degree in science in 1884, which is when she became interested in petrography, according to an article published by the Berkshire Museum, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

In 1887 she earned a master’s degree in microscopic lithology, the composition of rocks, “although her study was mostly independent and limited to the laboratory, as women were not allowed to join expeditions in the field”, the Berkshire museum says.

In 1889 she entered graduate school at Johns Hopkins, although she had to sit isolated behind a screen during classes so as not to disrupt male students.

The museum article says Bascom’s acceptance as a doctoral candidate was done in secret – “the school did not officially admit women until 1907 and would not award another woman a doctorate until 1911”. Further, it says, “newspapers nationwide ran headlines when Florence became the first woman to earn a PhD from Johns Hopkins”.

Despite these circumstances, Bascom thrived at Hopkins, with the help of geology professor George Huntington Williams (1856-94), who would become her mentor.

“Williams taught Florence techniques he had learnt in Germany that involved cutting and examining thin rock segments under the polarised light of a microscope to study them,” says the museum article. “Most importantly, he allowed her to do fieldwork over the summer of 1892. This was her first experience working outside the lab. She worked intently, hammering away in long skirts and a corset while passersby stared and made rude comments.”

The fieldwork paid off in the form of her dissertation, “The Structures, Origin and Nomenclature of the Acid Volcanic Rocks of South Mountain”, which “changed the scientific understanding of Maryland’s South Mountain geology and certain types of volcanic rock”, the museum says. “Her meticulous reports were incorporated into the Maryland Geological Survey.”

As an associate geologist working for the US Geological Survey, Bascom was “one of the first to research the Piedmont region, the vast plateau that lies between the Atlantic coast and the Appalachian Mountains. She became an authority in the formation, rock structures, and cycles of erosion of the Piedmont’s mid-Atlantic section. She spent summers doing fieldwork and the rest of the year analysing samples, preparing maps, and writing reports.”

In 1895 Bascom went to work at Bryn Mawr College, an exclusive women’s college in Pennsylvania, and created a geology program in which fieldwork was emphasised.

This insistence on fieldwork created some strife between Bascom and her boss, Bryn Mawr president M. Carey Thomas, says the US National Park Service.

Bascom wanted her students to receive physical education credit for geology fieldwork, but Thomas demanded that the women “wear appropriate apparel for the outdoors”.

According to the USNPS report, there was talk of allowing the women to wear “athletic skirts off the campus”. Thomas, however, said, “We do not think this would be wise, but every student ought to have a walking skirt and as soon as the members of your class are willing to provide themselves with such skirts the Health Committee will be willing to count the geological excursions of two hours as a substitute for the third hour of fixed exercise.”

Florence Bascom became a full professor at Bryn Mawr in 1906, retired in 1928, and died on 18 June 1945.

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