Florence Bascom, Trailblazer of the U.S. Geological Survey
One such trailblazer is Florence Bascom, the innovative ‘first lady’ of the U.S. Geological Survey. Bascom has a long list of noteworthy firsts, including being the first woman hired by the USGS. Like all trailblazers, she was a pioneer who took risks in her career and paved a new path for future generations of women to follow.
Before leaving her mark on the scientific community and helping build the foundation for today’s USGS, she started out as a girl in love with learning.
The youngest of five children, Bascom was born to John, a professor and Emma, a suffragist and educator. By all accounts both were ahead of their time and avid supporters of women's rights who strongly encouraged their daughter to pursue an education. When Florence was just 12, her father assumed a role as the president of the University of Wisconsin. While there, one of his many reforms was to establish the University as coeducational, allowing the first female student to enroll in 1875.
Bascom was a brilliant student, and at just 15 began studying at the University of Wisconsin. Close to her father, her scientific interest had been encouraged by the many times he took her exploring the natural wonders surrounding their home, where he also maintained an observatory and laboratory.
Despite the progressive nature of the University, gender roles of the time still prevailed and female students were only granted limited access to classes, events, and use of both the library and gymnasium. It was also common practice for female students to be seated in the back of the classrooms.
Nonetheless, Bascom earned two bachelor’s degrees, one in arts and in 1882 and one in science in 1884.
Post bachelor’s degrees Bascom initially followed a more traditional path for women and began teaching at the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), founded by her father’s friend post-Civil War, aimed at educating freed people and American Indians. After just one year, a lingering homesickness had her returning to Madison.
Once home, on a drive with her father and family friend Dr. Edward Orton, a geologist, prompted a conversation on the creation of the landscapes around them. She found herself wanting to know more about these natural wonders and reenrolled at the University of Wisconsin, earning her a master’s degree in geology in 1887. She undertook field projects with the help of Professors Charles Van Hise and Roland Irving, both of whom worked for the USGS.
After briefly teaching high school and two years as an instructor at the Rockford Seminary for Women (later Rockford college) in Illinois, Bascom yearned for more challenging work.
Soon, her University of Wisconsin professors encouraged her to apply to Johns Hopkins University, then the premier graduate school. Despite, the University presidents' vehement stance against the coeducation of women, he finally conceded under pressure from colleagues and Bascom’s former professors, Van Hise and Irving, and granted her “secret” admission.
Once at Johns Hopkins University, she was met with more adversity, being made to work in isolation behind screens in the corners of classrooms as to not distract male students. Not only a humiliating and infuriating experience for Bascom, but these obstacles also made it hard to hear or see her professors’ lectures. Fieldwork was also prohibited, however her advisor, professor George Williams, who worked also for the USGS would often take her to the field with him.
Her doctoral dissertation explored the geologic origins of the Appalachian Mountains, where she showed that local rocks previously believed to be sediments were in fact lava flows that had undergone metamorphosis. With the assistance of Dr. Williams, her dissertation was published as a USGS bulletin.
Bascom’s willingness to accept challenges in order to create a life she sought, allowed her to become the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University in 1893 and the second woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in geology, behind Mary Holmes in 1888 from the University of Michigan.
By 1895, Bryn Mawr College President James Rhoads had recruited Bascom to join his faculty, after recognizing her talent as a research scientist. Following his death, the incoming president Martha Carey Thomas, didn’t think geology would appeal to women and sought to create obstacles to discourage it. Despite these trials, Bascom founded the first Geology department at an all-women’s college with international distinction.
While at Bryn Mawr College she became the first woman geologist to be hired by the USGS in 1896. This gave her access to laboratory equipment, books and colleagues, which had all been unavailable to her at Bryn Mawr College.
She successfully intertwined her work with USGS and Bryn Mawr over the course of her career, spending summers doing fieldwork and the rest of the year analyzing samples, preparing maps, and writing reports in addition to educating the next generation of scientists. Bascom published over forty articles on genetic petrography, geomorphology and gravels, many of which are still relevant today and pioneered the use of microscopes in the study of minerals and rocks.
Since its early days, the USGS, has recognized the integral roles women play in the innovation and advancement of the scientific world. Bascom was just the first of many women working at every level who helped build one of the largest natural science organizations in the world.
She served as associate editor of the journal The American Geologist from 1896-1905 and was the first woman to present a paper before the Geological Society of Washington. She was the only woman voted as one of the top 100 geologists in the country in the first edition of American Men of Science and was the first female officer of the Council of the Geological Society of America.
Bascom continued working for the USGS until retirement in 1936 at 74 years old, parts of her research are still referenced today.
Her legacy is felt today in the generations of women who have followed in her footsteps, both in science and beyond, benefiting from her bravery and the world she helped create for those who came after her, in spite all of the hardships.
Throughout her career, she single-handedly opened the field of geology to women and trained most of the female geologists in the United States during the early 20th century, pouring her knowledge and passion into each of them.
The USGS Florence Bascom Geoscience Center is named to honor her legacy and achievements, as are several natural features, including a glacial lake, a Venusian crater and an asteroid.
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