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Ground-Breaking Women

A historical perspective of some of the important women who have shaped and influenced modern research in the earth sciences.

The following are some of the incredible groundbreaking women whose life works contributed to the vast and growing body of knowledge of earth sciences. Though some of them were contemporaries of Annie Alexander, many followed Alexander's pioneering lead. What all of the women shared was a spirit of adventure and the pursuit of scientific research at the risk of social approval.

Annie Montague Alexander was an intrepid woman whose passion for paleontology led her to strongly influence history and the earth sciences. This Web site is dedicated to those pioneering women who performed and excelled in professions traditionally held by men, thus opening the doors for female scientists for decades and centuries to come.

annie in field

annie alexanderAnnie Alexander was a woman born to wealth, opportunity and prestige in a time when women's roles in society were generally prescribed by social expectations for accepted gender roles. Rather than accepting her elevated social position and the comforts in life associated with it, she defied those roles and struck out as an intrepid world-traveler who was excited by adventure, discovery, independence and most of all, paleontology. Her contributions to the field changed not only the status and views of women on scientific expeditions, but also the understanding of paleontology in Northern California and beyond.

Growing up in Hawaii at a
young age, Annie Alexander watched as her father, Samuel Alexander, worked tirelessly to transform an arid area of the island of Maui into the lush environment necessary for growing sugar cane. She spent her childhood riding horse back around the island and her nights camping with her siblings in the forests of Maui.

When her father made the decision to move the family to Oakland, California in 1883 for reasons of health and to further his business in sugar on the mainland, Annie was disappointed at the loss of her island home. In 1887, she traveled east to Massachusetts to attend Lasell Seminary forYoung Women. This school was radical in its time with the idea that women should be educated beyond simple reading, writing and arithmetic. Her attendance at Lasell Seminary likely laid the groundwork for Alexander's independent thinking later in her life.

Upon completing her education at Lasell Seminary, Alexander began traveling. The first destination was Europe, which she explored with her family at first and later alone with her father. Whether taking a 1,500 mile bike-tour of Europe or traveling to places like China, Java, Samoa and Singapore in the South Pacific, Alexander flourished with the exposure to other cultures, landscapes and the general freedom that traveling provided her. Later, when she was at her home in Oakland, Alexander would write letters to friends explaining her extreme loneliness and feelings of depression at being forced to stay in one place at a time.

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alenxanderIn 1899, Alexander set out on a 10-week trip through Northern California and Oregon on horseback with a close friend, Martha Beckwith. The two women collected plant samples and studied the geology of the region. Beckwith educated Annie about the birds they encountered as well. The trip marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two women and Alexander later credited Beckwith withintroducing her to geology and her ensuing passion for fossils.

In 1901, Alexander began attending lectures by John C. Merriam, a well-known and engaging professor of paleontology at UC Berkeley. She developed a passion for paleontology through these lectures and began exploring the Bay Area to discover fossils on her own. At this time, she wrote letters extolling the amazing landscapes of the area and expressing regret that she had never appreciated the land where she lived until she was fossil-hunting or digging in the nearby shell mounds. Alexander developed a professional relationship with Merriam and an interest in his work, and eventually offered to fund his expeditions.

As Merriam's trips became more successful and Alexander saw the fascinating fossils recovered by the team, she began to express interest in joining Merriam's team in the field. Her requests to accompany Merriam's team of paleontologists in the field was eventually accepted with the understanding that she would fund the expeditions, work on the trips (to her delight) and would donate whatever fossils she discovered back to the UC Berkeley to boost its standing as a center for paleontological research.

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alexander shooting a rifle

The sudden death of her father during an African expedition in 1904 became a catalyst for Alexander to absorb herself in another project to distract herself from her grief. Alexander was devastated by the loss of her father, but was determined to continue to live in a manner consistent with her father's wishes for her. Soon, she began formulating a plan for a museum of vertebrate zoology.

It was not until 1908 that the plans for the museum began to take a realistic shape. Alexander helped prepare the plans for the museum and continued her expeditions to collect specimens for the museum and the paleontology department.

During this time, Alexander decided to find a female companion to travel with; her colleagues had suggested the idea due to issues of propriety. Alexander had taken up some of the duties as the cook at the expedition camps and she was looking for someone to share both the physical labor and the joy of fieldwork she enjoyed as a field biologist. Soon enough, Alexander discovered a friend in Louise Kellogg.

Their first trip together was the "1908 Alexander Expedition" to Alaska. Alexander expressed concern to her colleagues about Kellogg's ability to survive the conditions in the field, but to Alexander's delight, Kellogg proved to be an exceptional work and travel companion. The trip to Alaska marked the beginning of a 42-year-long relationship between the women that ended only with Alexander's death in 1950.

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alexander and kellogIn 1911, Alexander and Kellogg purchased the land on Grizzly Island in Suisun Bay, approximately 40 miles northeast of Oakland. They wanted to have a ranch, grow crops and raise cattle. With a slow and difficult start, the women were successful in growing hay over the years, breeding and milking shorthorn cattle, as well as growing nationally-purchased, award-winning asparagus. Alexander provided the financial backing for the ranch, made the business decisions and purchases; Louise did much of the physical labor-plowing, planting, weeding the vegetable garden, doing the wash and the cooking.

With Kellogg by her side, Alexander continued to do field research with the UC Berkeley Department of Paleontology. In 1920 she established the University of California Museum of Paleontology and created an endowment for its funding. Over the years, Kellogg and Alexander collected, documented and donated more than 22,000 species of plant, animal and paleontological specimens to the university. At least 17 species of plants and animals honor Alexander in their scientific names. Several others are named after Kellogg.

annie alexanderAnnie Montague Alexander was an incredible woman in many ways. Most prominent of her qualities was her refusal to accept the norms and propriety expected of women. In an era when women in science were rare, Alexander pressed forward and accepted no other definition of her life than the one she created for herself. It is this spirit that pioneering female scientists all over the world exhibit when they contribute to their fields of study.

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Historical Images and Biographies

Marion Rawson (1899-1980)

Marion Rawson standing in a field at Troy - 1930sKnown for her work at the Palace of Nestor, Ancient Troy and Pylos, Rawson was one of the first women to specialize in Bronze Age Archaeology. Photo courtesy of Brown University.

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Grace Crowfoot (1877-1957)

Grace Crowfoot on a camel in Nubia - 1917Grace Crowfoot was born in England. Her first excavation was a cave in the Ligurian Alps where she discovered 300 beads. She became a textile archaeologist and specialized on the textiles and ceramics associated with the Pharaonic tombs. Photo courtesy of Brown University.

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Winnifred Goldring (1888-1971)

Winnifred GoldringWinnifred Goldring is known as the first female state paleontologist of New York. She is best known for her work on the Gilboa fossil flora and the Devonian Crinoids of New York. Photo courtesy of New York State Museum.

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Grace Harriet Macurdy (1866-1946)

Grace Harriet Macurdy Grace Macurdy was a professor of Greek at Vassar College and was the first scholar to focus her studies on the political and social roles of women in history. Photo courtesy of VROMA.

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Ersilia Lovatelli (1840-1925)

Ersilia LovatelliBorn in Rome, Lovatelli was the first female member of the National Academy of Lincei. She was called by some, the most important archaeologist of her time. Some of her studies focused on Roman dress, inscriptions, mosaics, ancient topography, cults, rites, festivals, popular traditions and children's games. Photo courtesy of Brown University.

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Florence Bascom (1862-1945)

florenceBascom was a well-documented, pioneering geologist. She was the second woman in the United States to receive a doctorate in geology and the first female geologist hired by the United States Geological Survey in 1896. She was also an associate editor of the American Geologist and founded the geology department at Bryn Mawr College. She is known as an expert in crystallography, mineralogy and petrography. Photo courtesy of USGS.org.

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Vesta Holt (1892-1970)

vestaHolt was a pioneering botanist in Northern California. She graduated from Stanford University with a Ph.D and spent her career at Chico State, discovering and documenting many plant species in Northern California and served as chair of the Department of Biological Sciences. Photo courtesy of California State University, Chico.

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Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994)

Marija Gimbutas in IrelandGimbutas was a world-renowned prehistorian. She was a lecturer at Stanford, Harvard and UCLA where she was appointed Curator of Old World Archaeology, now the Fowler Museum of Cultural History. She is also known for introducing the "Mother Goddess Cult." Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Mary Leakey (1913-1996)

Marky Leaky holding a fossil from Olduvai GorgeMary Leaky discovered the Proconsul africanus on Rusinga Island, Kenya- the first fossil of an ape skull ever found. She spent most of her career working with her husband, Louis Leakey, excavating hominine in the Olduvai Gorge in Eastern Africa. She was also responsible for uncovering the Laetoli footprints. Photo courtesy of Archaeologics.com.

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