Tuesday, July 13, 2010

July 14: Dr. Florence Bascom, Rock Star

The late nineteenth century was an exciting time for women in the United States as they saw their opportunities for professional careers expanding further than they ever had before in this nation. One of those women became among first to earn a PhD in Geology (the second woman to do so); the first woman geologist hired by the U.S. Geological Survey; as well as the first woman elected to the Council of the Geological Society of America. However, none of these significant ‘firsts’ in women’s history occurred with out struggle, persistence, and dedication.

Florence Bascom was born in Williamstown, Massachusetts on July 14, 1862. She would be the last of six children. Her parents were John and Emma Curtis Bascom. John Bascom was a professor of oratory and rhetoric at Williams College, and in 1874 he became the president of the University of Wisconsin – a post he held until 1887. He and his wife actively supported the temperance and suffrage movements and he advocated coeducation. A year after he became president of the University of Wisconsin that school opened its doors to women students – a radical and progressive move for the era. Florence’s mother was a suffragist as well as a school teacher. The progressive attitudes of her parents encouraged Bascom to not fear any challenge to attain what she desired.

While not much is known of Bascom’s early education, she did graduate at the age of fifteen from high school in Madison, Wisconsin. Immediately after her high school graduation in 1877 Florence Bascom enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. While admitted to the university, women were limited in what they could do. For instance, they had limited access to the library and the gymnasium. Women were not allowed to be in classrooms that were filled with men. But, she listened, took notes, and read widely – graduating by the time she was twenty with two Bachelor’s degrees in 1882 - and adding a Bachelor of Science degree in 1884. She went on to graduate school, earning her Master’s degree in Geology in 1887.

Bascom applied to John Hopkins University for admission to the Geology Department in September 1890 – and seven months later she was given permission to take graduate classes at John Hopkins University – even though John Hopkins had not officially opened its doors for women to earn a degree. An executive committee voted to allow Bascom to attend classes without being officially enrolled. In 1892 she formally applied to enter the doctoral program, and was be accepted secretly into the program.

While at John Hopkins she had to sit, isolated, behind a screen that blocked her view of the men, the teacher, and the blackboard. Why? The reason was simple in the perspective of the male-dominated school: she was isolated in order not to “disrupt” male students who were not used to seeing a female student, especially in graduate courses. This isolation continued in the field studies – which women were not encouraged to attend, but Bascom did. Since she could not accompany the class, she would travel with her mentor, Professor George Williams, to conduct studies on rock formations and structures in Pennsylvania and Maryland. The end result of her experience was a doctoral dissertation that was classified as ‘brilliant’, and put her in the foremost rank of young, budding geologists. In 1893 Bascom became the first woman to earn a PhD at John Hopkins University.

Bascom’s interest in geology was due to a driving tour she made with her father and a geology professor at Ohio State, Edward Orton. Orton was an early supporter of allowing women to study the science of geology. This early interest led to her studying geology at the University of Wisconsin and making it her career.

From 1893 to 1895 Bascom would work as an instructor at Ohio State University. Then her big break came in 1895 when M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr College, invited Bascom to establish a Department of Geology for women in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Since geology was not yet considered important enough for its own building, she worked at first in a storage space that was in a building housing the ‘major’ sciences of biology, chemistry, and physics. She spent the next two years gathering the resources she would need to educate a new generation of women in the field of geology – collections of mineral, rock, and fossils. She would achieve full professorship at Bryn Mawr in 1906, where she not only created the undergraduate Geology course, but a national recognized graduate course in geology as well.

A number of students would come under Bascom’s influence during her teaching career, and would later become university instructors, work on state and federal geologic surveys, and serve in the Military Geology Unit in World War II. Bascom was described as rigorous, incisive, and consistent. She was also proud of her students, writing to Professor Herman Fairchild in 1931:

“I have always claimed that 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 omen, ranking with that done by men, has been done by my students…. These are all notable young women and will be a credit to the science of geology.”
In 1896 Bascom became the first woman geologist employed by the U.S. Geological Survey. She would combine her teaching position at Bryn Mawr College with field studies on the eastern seaboard for the Geological Survey where her work on mapping crystalline rock formations became the basis of many later studies. In 1906 the first edition of American Men and Women of Science listed her as a four-starred geologist – which placed her among the nation’s hundred leading geologists. Her accomplishments were described in the Geological Society of America's magazine, GSA Today, July 1997 as follows: "Bascom was the first woman hired by the U.S. Geological Survey (1896), the first woman to present a paper before the Geological Society of Washington (1901), the first woman elected to the Council of the Geological Society of America (elected in 1924; no other woman was elected until after 1945), and the first woman officer of the GSA (vice president in 1930). She was an associate editor of the American Geologist (1896-1905) and a four-starred geologist in the first edition of American Men and Women of Science (1906), which meant that her colleagues regarded her as among the country's hundred leading geologists. After joining the Bryn Mawr College faculty, Bascom founded the college's geology department. This site became the locus of training for the most accomplished female geologists of the early 20th century."

Bascom retired from her professorship at Bryn Mawer in 1928 but continued working for the U.S. Geological Survey, moving to Washington, D.C. in order to prepare her final series of Survey reports. She would retire from the Geological Survey in 1936 at the age of 74.

Bascom passed away from a cerebral hemorrage in the city of her birth, Williamstown, on June 18, 1945, leaving a remembrance, according to former student Eleanora Bliss Knopf writing in American Mineralogist, "to her colleagues, her students, and her friends the inspiring memory of a scholarly and brilliant mind combined with a forceful and vigorous personality." As Ida Ogilvie, one of Bascom’s students who herself became a geology professor, wrote in 1945 about Bascom:

“Probably no one will ever know all the difficulties that she encountered, but little by little she achieved her purpose of making her department one of the best in the country.”

Associated Content
Geological Society of America
Memorial to Florence Bascom
Today in Science


Portrait of Dr. Bascom/Mineralogical Society of America
John Bascom, University of Wisconsin
Emma C. Bascom, University of Wisconsin
Younger Florence Bascom/Wikipedia
Bascom Standing with a Compass/GSA
Bascom at the Grand Canyon/GSA
The elder Dr. Bascom