On the Shoulders of Giants: Florence Bascom (Part III)

(Cover Photo: John Bascom (upper left), George Williams (Upper Right) and Victor Goldschmidt (lower), three of Florence Bascom’s (far right) key mentors. Public Domain. Photos of F. Bascom and Williams from Arnold, 20001)

Florence Bascom owes her success to her mentors. She in turn mentored a generation of women geoscientists.

In 1894, while on a field excursion, a world-renown geologist contracted typhoid fever. He was only 38 years old, but his health was rapidly failing. He mustered his last strength to focus on a single task.

His PhD student had just mapped and illustrated volcanic rocks of Maryland, but as a woman, she would be challenged to get it published. So, the professor, George Huntington Williams, submitted the work of his student, Florence Bascom to the US Geological Survey (USGS) for publication. He died soon thereafter.1

Even with death lurking in the shadows, Williams knew Bascom needed his help in order to break into the male-dominated world of geology. At a time when anyone would have forgiven him if he had failed to submit the manuscript, Williams put Bascom’s future over his own immediate needs. His story shows how powerful a mentor can be in making geosciences more equitable.

As the saying goes, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We all have people in our lives who made us who we are, inspired us, and helped us when we most needed it. Florence Bascom was lucky to have amazing mentors at every stage of her life.

This is part three on my series on Florence Bascom. For a general overview of her accomplishments, see Part 1. For a discussion on the discrimination Bascom faced, and how that relates to women in modern geoscience, see Part 2. In this post, I cover three of mentors who impacted Bascom’s life and career. I also describe how Bascom in turn was a mentor to a new generation of women geoscientists.

For all of the pain, isolation, and trouble Bascom faced, she herself became the giant upon whose shoulders nearly all American women geoscientists stand.


Parents: John and Emma Curtiss Bascom

Photograph of a family of five in old style clothes. In the front are an older man and woman and a young woman. In the back stand a young woman and young man.
A photograph of Florence Bascom (upper left) and her family. Her father (far left) and mother (far right) were key mentors throughout Florence’s life. (Public Domain, part of the Sophia Smith Collection)2,3

While most biographies of Bascom begin with the relationship she had with her father, Her mother is equally responsible for Florence’s career in science.

Despite societal expectations of a quiet domestic life, Emma Curtiss Bascom was a public figure, a firebrand, and an activist. She was an advocate for women’s rights and a suffragette. Bascom’s mother instilled in her a strong support for women’s equality and a desire to break into a “man’s world.”4

While her mother inspired her to pursue science as a career, Bascom’s father, John Bascom, introduced her to geology.

John Bascom was an advocate of equal education for women. Florence wrote of how her father used his position as president of the University of Wisconsin to refute an archaic idea that higher education somehow made women more prone to illness.5 John Bascom investigated student health records and showed that male students were more often sick than women and claims of women being physically unable to attend university were perposterous.4,5

Bascom and her father were very close, and that bond would be an important part for the rest of their lives. John was the first to notice Florence had grown interested in geology, and he convinced her to quit her teaching job to return to Wisconsin to study it.2,4  

Her father later used his position as president of Wisconsin to push for Bascom’s admittance into Johns Hopkins University. As I wrote last post, Johns Hopkins did not allow women entry into their university. A strong letter of recommendation from her father, along with many other geologists introduced to Bascom through her father, were the primary reasons she was allowed admittence.2 John Bascom continued to ensure Florence stayed in her program both with financial support and with countless letters of encouragement.1 After Florence complained to her father of the mistreatment she faced, he wrote to her:

“[Put] a stone or two in your pockets to throw at those ‘heads that are thrust out of windows.'”

John Bascom to Florence Bascom4

Florence Bascom received kind words and encouragement from her father throughout her career. He ensured that the brilliance of a young woman was allowed to shine in a world that was dimmed to women.


PhD adviser – George Huntington Williams

A photograph of a man wearing glasses and a long, curled mustache. Wearing old style formal clothes
George Huntington Williams, Bascom’s PhD Adviser1

Florence Bascom’s achievement as the first woman to earn a PhD from Johns Hopkins was in no small part due to the close partnership she had with her adviser, George Huntington Williams.

Williams was a rising star in the petrography world. He studied in Heidelberg, Germany, the home of one of the top crystallography and mineralogy schools in the world. Bascom partly wanted to attend Johns Hopkins to learn petrography under his guidance.1

Williams not only trained Bascom in petrography, but he insisted she also be trained in field research. Williams strongly believed geologists must have proper field training. He said that it is:

“The acknowledged duty of every petrologist to be at the same time a field-petrologist, and to study his material in the laboratory in light of his own observations in the field.”

George H. Williams1

To further cause controversy, Williams wanted to take Bascom into the field by himself. While his motives were purely to provide her with one-on-one learning, a man taking a young woman into the woods alone caused quite the stir. Williams insisted that Bascom needed the field experience, and so he decided to bring his wife along to avoid any unwarranted rumors.1

It was on these trips with Williams that Bascom fell in love with field work.

As I mentioned last time, Bascom had to reapply every year to remain at Johns Hopkins. Williams was one of her greatest champions at the school and many times ensured her continuing enrollment. As she came closer to completing her PhD work, Johns Hopkins’ leadership had decided they would not renew her admission. When news of Bascom’s impending expulsion reached Williams, he wrote lengthy letters to the university in which he described her “remarkably high character and thoroughness.” He also included a long list of her achievements and contributions to geology. William’s arguments convinced the school, and they allowed her to finish her degree.1

Bascom owes her entire career to the relentless and persistent actions of her PhD adviser. Williams strongly believed women should participate in geology as equals, and he worked, even to his dying day, to ensure Bascom succeeded.

Even when faced with death, he gave Bascom everything he had.


Career Mentor – Victor Goldschmidt 

Photograph of five men and one woman wearing old style clothes sitting in front of a scientific instrument.
Florence Bascom in Victor Goldschmidt’s lab during her sabbatical in 1907. (Public Domain4)

Through her connection to Williams, Florence Bascom had become introduced to one of the top crystallographers of her day, Victor Mordechai Goldschmidt. Williams and Goldschmidt had both studied under the same professor at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, and Goldschmidt had since taken over as that lab’s primary investigator.2

In 1906, Bascom took a year-long sabbatical in Heidelberg to learn how to describe and measure mineral crystals with techniques and equipment Goldschmidt and his associates had invented.2

During her sabbatical, Bascom became friends with Goldschmidt, and the two remained in close contact long after. The series of letters they sent to each other illustrate their close bond and Goldschmidt’s role as Bascom’s career mentor.6

Bascom sent everything she did to Goldschmidt for his review. He provided her with positive feedback and often remarked how her work was amazing, ground breaking, and placed her as one of the world’s top petrographers. His kind words and support bolstered her international reputation as a geologist.6

The letters between the two are also very personal. Bascom speaks to Goldschmidt of her depression following her father’s death, her loneliness, and her personal struggles with the leadership at Bryn Mawr College. Goldschmidt in turn offered her kind words of encouragement, although he did advise her to give up her USGS job to focus on teaching.6

The letters were summarized by Arnold (1993)6, and I strongly suggest you read them if you have access. The letters show that Goldschmidt was more than just a mentor. He was also one of Bascom’s closest friends despite their separation across an ocean.

The letters are also sometimes tragic. In them, Bascom was very open about her personal struggles. Goldschmidt likewise wrote about the challenges he faced living in Germany during World War 1. He also described the suffering and mass starvation he and others in Heidelberg faced after the war. The effects of the war and its aftermath left Goldschmidt in poor health and his lab in shambles. Yet, he still found comfort in his friendship with Bascom.6

One of my favorite lines in their letters comes from his time period where Goldschmidt wrote:

“All your letters bespeak such warm and dear friendship that it is a real comfort in these difficult times.”

Victor Goldschmidt to Florence Bascom, sometime after World War 1.6

Returning the Favor – Bascom as a mentor

Four women standing on train tracks in front of a geologic otucrop.
Florence Bascom (center, facing the camera) with a group of women students in the field in 1917.6

Bascom herself was, by all accounts, an amazing mentor. As a faculty member at Bryn Mawr, she went on to teach many of the top women geoscientists of the mid 20th Century. One of her personal goals was to provide woman an equitable education in geology to combat gender disparity in the science.2

“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 women, ranking with that done by men, has been done by my students… these are all notable young women who will be a credit to the science of geology.”

Florence Bascom7

As her PhD adviser had done, Bascom insisted all her students learn field techniques regardless of their gender.8 When she was limited in teaching material, she would bring in famous geoscientists to lecture to her students.2 Bascom ensured her students received a world-class education in all aspects of geology and paleontology.

Bascom left her mark on a new successful generation of women geoscientists. A majority of women listed as the top geologists and paleontologists of the 20th Century were her students.2 Some of the women Bascom mentored include:

  • Ida Ogilvie, glacial geomorphologist, educator, and fellow of the Geological Society of America and American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  • Julia Gardner and Maria Stadnichenko, pioneering professional paleontologists
  • Eleanora Bliss (Knopf) and Anna Jonas (Stose), USGS petrologists
  • Mary Porter, who became one of the world’s top crystallographers at Oxford
  • Katherine Fowler Billings, who discovered the uplift history of the U.S. Rocky Mountains

The women who learned geology under Bascom mentioned her innovative instruction, high expectations, and often tough classes. They were unanimous that Bascom had pure joy in doing geology, especially in the field.2

Bascom was not afraid to argue with her protegees after they went onto their own careers. One of the more famous of these arguments happened when two of her students had reinterpreted one of Bascom’s field sites. The two argued for a different age relationship of the strata present at the location. Bascom quickly published a rebuttal arguing why her students were wrong based on the evidence she had collected.8

The argument came across as a public rebuke of her former students. However, her rebuttal was quite similar to how her students described her teaching style. It is likely Bascom instead saw her response to the controversy as a teaching moment. Further field data collection confirmed Bascom’s initial interpretation was correct.2,8

Regardless of how tough Bascom was on her students, they clearly admired her. One touching description of Bascom, written after her death by her former student Ida Ogilvie paints a picture of who Bascom was as a geologist.

“She felt that geology was the most important of the sciences, to some extent including the others, and that it was really the culmination of all science. 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.”

Ida Ogilvie, 19459

Florence Bascom owed her success to a series of strong mentors, and she in turn mentored a new generation of women geoscientists. She persisted through a life of difficulty and lifted up the next generation of amazing women, many of whom broke even more barriers. 

Florence Bascom is an inspiration. She shows us the power of mentorship in breaking down limits that systemic discrimination enforces on women and minorities.

Perhaps one day, when geosciences are truly equitable, we will look back at Bascom as being the “Stone Lady” on whose mighty shoulders we all stand.


Thank you again for reading my series on Florence Bascom. For the next main post, I’m going to continue with an addendum on Bascom concerning her letters with Victor Goldschmidt. These letters tell a tragic tale of geology during the World Wars, and how friendship, even if separated by an ocean, can help us get through life’s greatest challenges. 

References

  1. Arnold, L. (2000). Becoming a geologist: Florence Bascom and Johns Hopkins, 1888-1895. Earth sciences history19(1), 2-25.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Arnold, L. (1999). Becoming a geologist: Florence bascom in Wisconsin, 1874-1887. Earth sciences history18(2), 159-179.
  5. Florence Bascom. (1925). The University in 1874-1887. The Wisconsin Magazine of History, 8(3), 300-308.
  6. Arnold, L. B. (1993). The Bascom-Goldschmidt-Porter Correspondence 1907 to 1922. Earth Sciences History, 196-223.
  7. Bascom, F. (1932). Letter to Professor Herman Fairchild. In: Fairchild, H. (ed.) The Geological Society of America 1888-1930. Geological Society of America, New York.
  8. Arnold, L. B., (1983). The Wissahickon controversy: Florence Bascom vs. her students: Earth Sciences History, v. 2, p. 130–144.
  9. Ogilvie, I. H. (1945). FLORENCE BASCOM 1862-1945. Science102(2648), 320-321.
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

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