The Stone Lady: Dr. Florence Bascom (Part 1)

Florence Bascom forever altered the landscaped of American geology.

(Cover banner: Bascom portrait1 from Sophia Smith Collection2, Smith College and illustration is from Bascom and Stose, 19323.)

In 1896, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) needed someone to map out the geology of the eastern United States. They hired a professor from Bryn Mawr College, a small women’s college in Pennsylvania, who was rapidly gaining notoriety as a world-class geologist.

The researcher they hired, Dr. Florence Bascom, became the first woman professional geologist in the United States. 


Florence Bascom forever changed the look of the American geologist and opened the door to a new generation of women who themselves made significant impacts to geology and paleontology. She authored around 40 publications about the geology of the eastern US.

Even though Bascom was at one time lauded as a top American geologist, I’m guessing most of those reading this have never heard of her. She is rarely talked about in the history of geology, and her contributions are often overlooked.

I will spend three posts covering the life and works of Dr. Florence Bascom. Part 1 (this post) will cover her amazing firsts and the impact she made to geological sciences. Part 2 will highlight how Bascom faced adversity as a woman. Part 3 will talk more about mentorship, both how her mentors helped her succeed and how she in turn mentored women geoscientists.

Most biographies of Bascom focus solely on her lists of firsts. Very rarely do we hear about what she did. 

I find this a little odd. We never discuss the achievements of men in the same light. For example, we write that James Hutton conceptualized uniformitarianism (the theory that the rock record is the result of continuous processes, such as the steady deposition of sediment in a river). If we wrote about him as we do Bascom, we would only say he was the “first Scottish geologist.”

Bascom earned her honors and accolades. She was an amazing geologist, and her work was both foundational and still cited today as relevant. 

Florence Bascom was, as one author put it, the “Pioneer of Women Geologists.1

Florence Bascom wearing a jacket and a bow around her neck. She also has a large hat. She is holding a compass in her hands.
Florence Bascom in her usual field attire holding a Brunton compass1. From: Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College2.

Pioneer of Women Geologists

You may be surprised to learn that, given her success, Florence Bascom initially wanted nothing to do with geology. She earned two Bachelor’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin in Arts and Letters, and after graduation went into teaching1.

It was only after a trip she took with family friend and Ohio State University geologist Edward Orton that she became interested in geology4. With some cajoling from her father, she returned to Wisconsin and studied petrography (the study of the mineral makeup of rocks). She fell in love with geology, even though she lamented how she felt trapped in a field that did not allow her to participate in the same way as her male colleagues1.

Bascom was the first woman to earn a PhD from Johns Hopkins. After receiving her PhD, she worked with Orton at Ohio State, and is credited for entrenching hard rock geology in that school’s department1.

After her time at Ohio State, Bascom took a position at Bryn Mawr College. She founded the geology department there and built her teaching and lab space by herself. She had work tirelessly to obtain enough samples and literature to teach. She was known as an innovative, but tough, instructor, and her students considered her an amazing mentor1.

However, teaching was not her primary passion. She always loved being out in the field more than in a classroom. 

So she broke even more new ground.

The USGS hired her in 1896, and she was promoted to full geologist in 19091. The USGS job became Bascom’s primary passion, to the point that Bryn Mawr’s president used the time Bascom was spending with the USGS as a reason to try to dissolve the geology program1.

With her new professional career, she was finally allowed to work in the field like men had always been.

Bascom’s geological prowess earned her respect from the Geological Society of America (GSA). She joined the organization and quickly became a preeminent member. Bascom wasn’t the first woman fellow of the GSA, that honor belongs to paleontologist Mary Emilee Holmes, but she was the first woman geologist to become a fellow. She was the first woman to hold a high office position in the GSA when she was elected Vice President in 19301.

But, as I said earlier, Florence Bascom is more than a woman of firsts. She furthered our understanding of the geology of the east coast of the United States. It was her work that earned her international respect as a preeminent geologist.

Photo of Bascom standing on a rock at the edge of a large lake with her back turned to the camera
Florence Bascom at Yellowstone National Park5. From Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College2

The Geology of the “Stone Lady”

Unlike many of the people I have written about so far, Florence Bascom has an extensive publication record.

She wrote around 40 articles on volcanoes, stratigraphy, petrography, mineralogy, and depositional and erosional cycles. Most of her work focused on the geology of the eastern United States especially in the Piedmont area of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland.

Her writings illustrate that she was analytical, data-driven, and detail oriented. Her text is easy to understand, clear, concise, and unapologetic. If she disagreed with someone, they were called out in very plain, sometimes terse, text. One work where this comes out clearly is her treatise on the metamorphic and igneous rocks of Maryland and Pennyslvania6. I suggest you take a look at it.

In one part, she described the evidence for the age of igneous rocks she studied. She referred to a previous publication that assigned a different age to the rocks. She wrote how

“…this determination was made on the basis of some rather dubious fossils submitted… by Persifor Frazer and cannot, therefore, be considered perfectly trustworthy.”

Bascom, 19026

She instead argued for the true age relationships of the units with clear and detailed illustrations.

Geologic cross section showing folded rock strata illustrated with different symbols, blocks for limestone, dots and lines for igneous and metamorphic rocks
An illustration made by Bascom of the complex geology of the Piedmont Region of PA.6

Bascom significantly advanced our knowledge of the geology of the Piedmont region where she determined that there were many more erosional and depositional cycles than previously assumed6. Over her many years with Bryn Mawr and the USGS she and her students revised and mapped out the stratigraphy of the entire region3,8

Her papers contain several photographs of outcrops and landforms. Photographing outcrops in the field in the early 1900’s had to have been difficult, especially compared to today where it’s easy to shoot a quick photo and post it to social media. She was clearly dedicated to do great geology and ensure her findings were clearly communicated to others.

An old photograph of a rock face on a cliff. The rocks are blocky and fractured and there are rubble piles at the base of the cliff
Photo of an outcrop that Bascom took to illustrate the stratigraphy of the Piedmont region in Pennsylvania and New Jersey7

Bascom was, however, fiercely territorial. She feuded with her own students and colleagues if they published anything in her area of expertise without her review9. She also detested when others went into her field area and did work without involving her. 

We shouldn’t hold this against her. There are a lot of modern scientists who are equally as territorial about their work. Perhaps Bascom had to be defensive in order to succeed at a time where women were not allowed in the field and were treated with open hostility by other men if they did venture outside.

Florence Bascom accomplished so much in a system that actively tried to stop her. She not only succeeded, but helped other women achieve greatness. She made geosciences in America a much more welcoming profession for women.

Florence Bascom showed the world that a woman’s place was in the field.

Thanks again for reading. Next time, I will detail some of the barriers against Bascom’s amazing success and use her story to discuss inclusion and equity in geosciences.

References

  1. Clary, R. M., & Wandersee, J. H. (2007). Great expectations: Florence Bascom (1842–1945) and the education of early US women geologists. Geological Society, London, Special Publications281(1), 123-135.
  2. All images marked in this way originally come from: Florence Bascom Papers, Sophia Smith Special Collections SSC-MS-00012. https://findingaids.smith.edu/repositories/2/archival_objects/80734.
  3. Bascom, F., & Stose, G. W. (1932). Description of the Coatesville and West Chester quadrangles. US Geological Survey Atlas of the United States, Folio223, 1938.
  4. Smith, I. F. (1981). The Stone Lady: A Memoir of Florence Bascom. Bryn Mawr College.
  5. Schneiderman, J. S. (1997). A life of firsts: Florence Bascom. GSA Today7(7), 8-9.
  6. Bascom, F. (1902). The geology of the crystalline rocks of Cecil County. Johns Hopkins Press.
  7. Bascom, F. (1921). Cycles of erosion in the Piedmont province of Pennsylvania. The Journal of Geology29(6), 540-559.
  8. Bascom, F. (1931). Geology and mineral resources of the Quakertown-Doylestown district, Pennsylvania and New Jersey (No. 828). US Government Printing Office.
  9. Arnold, L. (1983). The Wissahickon controversy: Florence Bascom vs. her students. Earth Sciences History2(2), 130-144.

Five portraits of my founding geoscientists. Shows Mary Anning, Shen Kuo, and Florence Bascom with two others hidden.

Part of my “Founding Five” diverse geoscientists

3 thoughts on “The Stone Lady: Dr. Florence Bascom (Part 1)

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