The Bascom-Goldschmidt letters detail the power of friendship but also the destruction of war
(Cover Image Credit: Public Domain. Photos of Florence Bascom are a part of the Sophia Smith Collection2 )
For the greater part of her life, Florence Bascom was close friends with Victor Goldschmidt. The two shared everything about their lives in a series of letters. Their letters illustrate their close bond. Goldschmidt was not only a mentor, as I spoke of last post, but was also one of Bascom’s closest friends.
Additionally, the letters are tragic and speak of the horrors of World War I and the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany. Optimistic viewpoints of historical figures are inspiring, but they overlook the often harsh realities of life. It is in the worst of times we see the true character of our idols. The correspondence between Bascom and Goldschmidt is therefore an important part of how we view Bascom. One of her closest friends and trusted mentor was directly impacted by war and hate. The power of their friendship overcame the ruin brought on by a world at war.
This is part 4 of a 4 part look at the “Stone Lady,” Florence Bascom. You can click here to read Part I, Part II, and Part III. In part III, I introduced the relationship between Bascom and Goldschmidt. Bascom studied under Goldschmidt during a year-long sabbatical she took in Heidelberg, Germany. Goldschmidt remained Bascom’s close friend and mentor, and the two wrote a series of letters to one another after Bascom returned to the US. We know a lot about Bascom’s life and career from this correspondence.
I must take a brief moment to warn you that this post deals with difficult historical truths and includes references to suicide towards the end. I will place a warning before that section, and if you do not feel like reading that part, you will know when to skip.
Furthermore, rather than me writing citations throughout this post, all of what I wrote is based on Arnold (1993)1, which I recommend you read. Arnold went through the arduous work of translating the German letters, and she does well at recounting the details of the correspondence between Goldschmidt and Bascom (and Bascom’s student Mary Porter, who would be a great subject for future posts herself).
Bascom and Goldschmidt’s early letters highlight Goldschmidt’s role as Bascom’s mentor. Almost immediately after her sabbatical in Heidelberg, Goldschmidt wrote to Bascom asking her to spend more time on crystallography and less time making maps for the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
Bascom, however, preferred the USGS work to her academic career. She was a gifted surveyor, and she received distinctions from the government for mapping the geology of the US East Coast. Goldschmidt, despite his very outward opinion that Bascom should shy away from her USGS role, still supported her. He congratulated her fort he “well-earned success for [her] laborious and sacrificial work.”
The two occasionally crossed paths at academic conferences or while Goldschmidt was traveling across America. In letters written following these meetings, the two express how much they cherished this limited time together and how they missed each other’s company when they were apart.
I get the sense that Goldschmidt may have been one of Bascom’s few true friends. As I wrote in part 2, Bascom was often lonely as the solitary geology professor at Bryn Mawr. She may have seen Goldschmidt as the only person who really understood and supported her.
The letters illustrate Victor Goldschmidt as an early advocate for women’s equality in geosciences. Goldschmidt’s comments showed he admired Bascom’s scientific aptitude, but more importantly he realized her importance as a trailblazer. He thought that, for Bascom’s mission to be successful, she needed to remain in her faculty position.
“You are, as far as I know, the only female professor of mineralogy and geology in the United States, maybe even the world. And you represent your post with the greatest distinction and honor. That is an achievement of which you should be proud, and the envy of many. With it you are fighting in the forefront for women, and thus you should stay with your post, even if it is not always attuned to your wishes, in the interests of [women].
You know how I stand on the question of women [sic], that women are as productive as men, and that they will eventually, though not without tough battles, conquer the same position.”Victor Goldschmidt to Florence Bascom, 10/15/19111
In one letter, Bascom was dismayed at the loss of one of her hand-drawn maps in the mail. The map represented an entire summer’s worth of work. Goldschmidt responded with surprising positivity and turned the event into a teaching moment.
He suggested Bascom use the loss of the map as an opportunity to take her students into the field and have them redo the map with her. She could have the map redrawn more quickly while at the same time instructing her students in a field area in which she had extensive experience.
What stands out to me in Goldschmidt’s writings is his optimistic outlook in every situation. Every setback or hardship Bascom faced was made less arduous. His positive outlook in the face of stressful situations was put to the test as the world descended into World War I.
World War I
The letters between Goldschmidt and Bascom took on a distinctively different tone after the start of World War I. Wartime censorship almost ended any attempts to communicate. During the war, only a few lucky letters made it past government officials.
Goldschmidt’s lab had fallen apart. Almost all of his students, lab associates, and colleagues, most of whom were men, were conscripted into the German military. As more and more young men were sent to the trenches, there were fewer students attending university, and Goldschmidt’s world-class crystallography laboratory essentially dissolved.
The war took a toll on Goldschmidt’s health and wellbeing. Bascom, in relative safety in the US during the war, wrote several frantic letters asking about the whereabouts of her German mentor. In the few surviving letters, Goldschmidt spoke of a growing sickness that overcame him, probably due to malnutrition as a result of strict wartime rationing.
Goldschmidt wrote how he witnessed injured soldiers and prisoners of war, the later of which were often kept in horrendously inhumane conditions. These letters did little to comfort Bascom, and the immense distance and lack of trustworthy communication must have been overwhelming.
Goldschmidt, ever the optimist, kindly responded to Bascom’s worried correspondence that, in their friendship, he found solace. Her letters comforted him in the face of daily wartime struggles.
His letters then ceased for three years.
Bascom continued to write to Goldschmidt, more worried than ever about his health. It’s not certain why Goldschmidt stopped writing, but it is possible both the German and American government obstructed more and more communication, especially following America’s entrance into the war.
The two would not hear from one another again until after the war was over.
Post World War I
In 1919, Bascom tried her luck and penned a letter to Goldschmidt. Lines of communication between the United States and Germany had been restored, and Bascom’s fears were elated when Goldschmidt finally wrote back. He told Bascom of how his illness worsened during the latter stages of the war. Yet, despite his condition, he managed to edit a multi-volume atlas of mineralogy. He had restarted his lab although one of his top assistants was killed in the fighting.
World War I completely altered the academic landscape in Germany. After the armistice was signed, there was an influx of veterans who, without any prospects of work, pursued college degrees.
The influx of veteran students bolstered the geology program at Heidelberg, but none of these new faces wanted to focus on mineralogy. Instead, demand had shifted to more practical applications in mining and petroleum geology. Goldschmidt struggled to attract the same level of talent, and funding, he had in the past.
Even with the initial hopeful tone of his first post-war letters, Goldschmidt’s writing quickly became much darker.
Following the war, parts of Germany were occupied by the Allies (France, Britain, and the US). Heidelberg itself was occupied by the French, who felt like they needed revenge on Germany for the war’s hardships.
Goldschmidt detailed the treatment of the denizens of Heidelberg by the French occupation. The French placed even more strict rations on food and other needs than had existed during the war. They quartered their soldiers in people’s homes and took what they wanted without payment. The result was widespread famine and disease.
At the same time, The German economy collapsed, and the country was ravaged by crippling unemployment and currency inflation. In one letter, Goldschmidt told Bascom that if she was planning on purchasing equipment from him, she should do so at once, lest the price of the equipment skyrocket. The economic troubles amplified the problems the people of Germany, Goldschmidt included, faced.
Goldschmidt was quite candid about the difficulties of living in post-war Germany. Starvation became so serious, he wrote, that thousands of people in Heidelberg were dying. Many were losing hope, and suicide had become a significant problem. In his letters, Goldschmidt remarked that he had not been political prior to the war, but in the aftermath he was nearly fanatical in his opposition of the post war politics of Germany. He especially resented the the French occupation.
Despite all of the problems he faced, Goldschmidt continued to provide Bascom feedback on her work. In 1922, he wrote to Bascom:
“I always admire what you are accomplishing. The work that is in these geological maps is enormous. While you are passing through difficult terrain on foot and on horseback, you accomplish positive work, establishing facts on which to build practical as well as theoretical conclusions.”Victor Goldschmidt to Florence Bascom, 19221
The chain of letters between Bascom and Goldschmidt continued long after the war. Their correspondence ended only after Goldschmidt died in 1933. The loss of her close friend and mentor certainly devastated Bascom.
[Warning, the following contains references to suicide. If you don’t wish to read that, skip to the next page break]
Florence Bascom was also close friends with Victor Goldschmidt’s wife, Leontine. The two had exchanged letters ever since being introduced during Bascom’s sabbatical. They wrote back and forth long after Victor passed away.
One of Bascom’s former students, Mary Porter, a mineralogist at Oxford and also good friends of the Goldschmidts, often acted as an intermediary between Bascom and the Goldschmidt family. The letters that Porter wrote to Bascom following Victor Goldschmidt’s death recount the terrible and tragic end of the Goldschmidt story.
The Goldschmidt family was Jewish and faced an existential threat when the Nazis took power in Germany. Leontine Goldschmidt survived her husband for quite some time and saw firsthand the rise of anti-Semitism. Her brothers were captured by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps in what is now Czechia. Porter wrote to Bascom how she had tried to convince Leontine to flee to Britain. However, her efforts failed.
When the Nazis came to deport Leontine, she killed herself.
The long-lived connection between Florence Bascom and the Goldschmidts had reached its tragic end.
The letters that Florence Bascom exchanged between Victor and Leontine Goldschmidt speak to the power of friendship. Bascom’s relationship with Victor Goldschmidt was especially powerful because it seems she really believed he was the only person who truly understood her. He was someone who provided Bascom with advice and feedback, and he was an early supporter of women’s equality in geology.
Their correspondence shows the terrible outcomes of war and hate. It is often hard for us to remember just how much the two World Wars and the Holocaust impacted lives around the globe. We often laud war for the scientific and technological advances that it drives, but we forget that a majority of scientists, and their work, suffer due to conflict.
I like this story, despite it’s difficult ending, because it describes a a part of Bascom’s life most biographers do not include. It also shows how her friendship with Victor Goldschmidt shaped her as a person and how she in turn helped him through one of the most difficult times of human history.
Florence Bascom would never have been the “Stone Lady” if it were not for her close bond she shared with Victor Goldschmidt.
- Arnold, L. B. (1993). The Bascom-Goldschmidt-Porter Correspondence 1907 to 1922. Earth Sciences History, 196-223.
- 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.