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Florence Bascom, Pioneer Geologist

 

Florence Bascom received the first Ph. D granted to a woman at Johns Hopkins University in 1893. In 1895 she began a long career at Bryn Mawr College, including the establishment of the geology department in 1901. She was the first woman hired as an assistant geologist with USGS in 1896.

In honor of Earth Science Week, October 14-20, 2012, the USGS is taking a look back into history at the scientists who laid the foundation for the innovative earth science research taking place today. Without the work conducted by these pioneers, much of the USGS science used for decision making worldwide would not be possible.

Florence Bascom collected many “firsts” in her geological career: she was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University (sitting behind a screen so the male students wouldn’t know she was there); the first woman geologist hired by the USGS; the first woman to present a scientific paper at the Geological Society of Washington; and the first woman officer of the Geological Society of America.

Bascom was born in 1862 in Williamstown, Mass., and died in Northampton 83 years later. Her father, president first of Williams College and later of the University of Wisconsin, encouraged her interest in geology, and she went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology from the University of Wisconsin in the 1880s.Her professors at Wisconsin, Roland Irving and Charles Van Hise, were also employed by the USGS, as was her professor at Johns Hopkins, George Williams. After receiving her Ph.D. in 1893, she began teaching geology at Bryn Mawr College (the first women’s college to offer graduate education through the Ph.D), but she combined her teaching career with active field and laboratory work for the USGS.She was an authority on the rocks of the Piedmont and published maps and folios. She also studied water resources of the Philadelphia region. Her writing was vigorous and incisive; her conversation was forceful and clear, if sometimes caustic.

Bascom later developed the geology curriculum at Bryn Mawr from a single course to a full major and then to a graduate program which trained most American women geologists during the first third of the 20th century. At least three of her students later joined the USGS. Bascom retired from teaching in 1928 but continued to work for the USGS until 1936.

Marcellus Shale outcrop showing geologic elements of the piedmont.

Peter Lyttle, current program coordinator for USGS national cooperative geologic mapping and landslide hazards, recounts a distant but clear connection to Florence Bascom. “When I was mapping in the Piedmont near Philadelphia in the 1980′s, I was hammering away at an outcrop on the side of the road.  An elderly gentleman driving by saw me and parked his car so that he could talk to me. It was common for people to stop and ask me what I was up to, and I had my usual reply ready. His comment, however, was not one that I was expecting. He had already figured out that I was a geologist, and he angrily asked me why I was remapping an area already mapped by Florence Bascom. Fortunately, I was able to pull out a copy of Bascom’s 1909 USGS folio of the Philadelphia area and explain that, indeed, I was benefiting from her fantastic work. I assured the gentleman that I properly understood the role that Dr. Bascom had played in field of geology and appreciated that I was standing on the shoulders of a giant. He went away mollified, if not happy.”

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