“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 was a woman of many firsts and a huge proponent in expanding career opportunities for women in science. She was one of the first women to obtain a Ph.D. from an American university in the field of geology. She was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. She was the first woman to join the United States Geological Survey. 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 Geological Society of America. She was the first woman officer of the Geological Society of America. And she founded Bryn Mawr College’s geology department – a site that would train some of the most accomplished female geologists in the early 20th century. She serves as a role model for ambitious women in the sciences who want to reach their dreams and aspirations despite the odds. Thus, this week’s Wonder Woman Wednesday post is dedicated to honoring the life and legacy of this woman of many firsts!
Bascom was born in Massachusetts on July 14th, 1862, to a great family that actively supported women’s rights and had interest in the natural sciences. Her father was Dr. John Bascom, a professor of oratory and rhetoric at Williams College. He became the president of the University of Wisconsin in 1874, and his university began admitting women in 1875, affording Florence Bascom the opportunity to enroll in 1877. Despite having access to an education, Florence was still a product of the sexist times and only had limited access to the library, gym, and classrooms already filled with men, just like other women students at the time. Following her passion for geology, Florence continued her schooling and was only permitted to take graduate classes at Johns Hopkins University in 1889 under the conditions that she would not be an officially enrolled student and that she would be forced to sit behind a screen to prevent being disruptive to the male students. She was secretly accepted into the doctoral program in 1892, and she produced an astonishingly brilliant dissertation in 1893 that earned her the first ever Ph.D. granted by Johns Hopkins University to a woman.
Bascom was an expert in mineralogy, crystallography, and petrology. Her dissertation was an important contribution to geology because she showed that rocks that were originally considered sedimentary were actually metamorphosed lava flows. She used cutting-edge methodology at the time to coordinate petrographic work with fieldwork. Part of Bascom’s work focused on the field of petrology, the study of how present-day rocks were formed. Petrology is considered one of the most essential components of geology because understanding the rock record is the foundation for interpreting Earth history and internal processes. Petrology helps scientists understand the Earth system and its connections with related fields like mineralogy, geochemistry, structural geology, and geophysics. Furthermore, it can be applicable to societal issues including natural hazards, natural resources, and even human health issues. Bascom focused a lot of her research on the Appalachian Piedmont region, establishing herself as an expert on crystalline rocks in the area, and publishing over 40 papers on the subject. Her contributions to Piedmont geology are still valued and used by geologists today.
But Bascom’s legacy goes beyond her research contributions. She was also an educator that worked to train a new generation of young women in the field of geology. Through her hard work, dedication, and excellence, she was able to establish a geology department at Bryn Mawr College and elevate the status of geology in comparison with other natural sciences. Throughout the years, she has trained and mentored many successful women in science including crystallographer Mary Porter, paleontologist Julia Gardner, petroleum geologist Maria Stadnichenko, and glacial geomorphologist Ida Ogilvie, just to name a few.
Article Written By: Lisa He