By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist
On this first day of Women’s History Month, I’d like to tell you about a remarkable woman who makes a brief appearance in one of our collections: Florence Bascom.
One of the things I enjoy about working as an archivist—and writing for the Beehive—is the opportunity to research a wide variety of interesting people from all eras of American history. Bascom’s name was familiar to me, but I didn’t know much about her.
The collection in question is the Benjamin-Owen family papers, which consists primarily of letters to Mary Curtiss (Benjamin) Owen and her son from family members and friends. Included are four letters from Bascom to Owen, written between 1912 and 1929. The two women were distant cousins; their great-grandfathers were brothers.
Mary Curtiss Benjamin, who went by the nickname May, was born in 1860 in Egremont, a small town at the southwestern edge of Massachusetts. In 1889, she married George F. Owen and moved with him to Colorado Springs. May Owen was an active suffragist there, and just four year later, Colorado became the first U.S. state to pass women’s suffrage by popular referendum.
Florence Bascom, two years younger than Owen, was herself the daughter of a suffragist. She was born in Williamstown, Mass., and distinguished herself early by earning a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Science, and a Master’s degree in geology from the University of Wisconsin. In 1893, she became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. (She was required to sit behind a screen in classrooms to separate her from the male students.)
Bascom taught at the college level both before and after her doctoral studies and, in 1895, was asked to found and head the geology department at Bryn Mawr College, where she would go on to teach for over three decades. Bascom also published dozens of papers on geology, worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, and belonged to many professional geological and scientific organizations.
When I came across Bascom’s letters, the first thing I noticed was how hard it is to read her handwriting. See for yourself!
The substance of the letters is fairly mundane. Bascom primarily discusses news of mutual family members and asks after Owen’s son. As for her scientific work, she occasionally mentions fieldwork and conferences, but only in passing. She also references her love of horseback riding.
The spiciest passage relates to her opinion on smoking, apparently in response to a question from Owen about women’s use of tobacco: “I am for women’s right to use it every time but I hate to see it used in excess by man or woman. It is after all a self-indulgent, somewhat inconsiderate-of-others, doubtfully hygienic and expensive habit.”
Slight though their content is, these letters are enough to give us a sense of Bascom’s thoughtfulness. I particularly like the way she asks Owen, “Are you fairly comfortable in your surroundings, May, and happy in your daily life? Please let me know frankly if you need what I could give you…”
Even though I wasn’t very familiar with her, Bascom’s accomplishments did not go unnoticed by her contemporaries. I found a number of notices about her published during her lifetime. The American Geologist reported on her in 1893 when she earned her Ph.D., remarking that her work had “attracted much attention,” and again in 1895 when she accepted the position at Bryn Mawr.
In 1898, The Chautauquan was already listing the 36-year-old geologist in an article on “Some American Women in Science,” alongside other illustrious names. She was also profiled in The Key (1916), a publication of Kappa Kappa Gamma, and later included in a book called Famous Women (1926), which ranks her with the likes of Marie Curie and Maria Mitchell.
Bascom died in 1945. Her namesakes have included a glacial lake in Massachusetts, a building at Johns Hopkins, a Venusian crater, and an S-type asteroid.