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Women’s History Month celebrates remarkable women who have left an indelible mark on history and the world.  

One such women is Julia Gardner, who helped paved the way for female scientists and left a legacy far beyond her scientific achievements. 


But who was Julia Gardner? Below are some facts about her and why she should be remembered. 


1. She had a distinguished career as one the first women hired by USGS. 


Gardner was one of the first women geologists hired by the U.S. Geological Survey. She was known globally as an expert on molluscs and as an authority in the stratigraphy, the branch of geology that studies rock layers (strata) and layering (stratification) specifically along the Gulf Coastal Plain.  


USGS studies in stratigraphy continue to be a source of important data to better understand Earth’s history, manage natural resources, assess hazards and protect water supplies.  


In 1952, upon her retirement from the USGS after 32 years, she was awarded the Department of the Interior's Distinguished Service Medal. As the highest honor a DOI employee can receive, it recognized her outstanding contribution to science during an eminent career. 

A placard featuring Julia Anna Gardner.
A placard featuring Julia Anna Gardner in the Veteran's Memorial outside of the John Wesley Powell Federal Building in Reston, Va. 

2. She pursued a higher education in defiance of social norms. 


She attended Bryn Mawr College during the time Florence Bascom (the geologist who was also the first women hired by USGS) served a faculty member. While there, Gardner earned a bachelor’s degree in 1905 and master’s degree in 1907. She went on to be the first woman admitted as a full-fledged student to the Department of Geology at Johns Hopkins University, where she earned her Ph.D. in geology in 1911.


While at Bryn Mawr, Gardner formed a lasting friendship with fellow geologists Eleanora Bliss Knopf and Anna Jonas Stose, who would also go on to work for USGS.  


 Knopf is celebrated for her work with the composition and structure of metamorphic rocks by analyzing thin sections under a microscope. This groundbreaking approach allowed her to gain insights into the geological history of Stissing Mountain in eastern New York state. In 1913, Knopf also made an independent discovery of the mineral glaucophane in Pennsylvania. 


Stose is best known for her work in geological mapping work of the Appalachian Mountain Range, documenting the structure of rock formations and tracing crystalline rocks. She was among the first to implement petrographic and structural techniques, which were still in development at the time, to produce detailed descriptions of rocks in the Appalachian Mountains. 


Though it was rare for women to hold degrees at the time, Gardner, Knopf, and Stose were part of a fierce new generation that opened doors for women in geology. 


3. Her career embodied dedication to public service. 


Initially Gardner came to work for USGS as a contractor in 1915.  But, in 1917 she decided to step away from her work at USGS to volunteer as an auxiliary nurse during World War I with the Red Cross in France, often working on the front lines. After the war, she returned to the United States and rejoined the USGS in 1920. 


During World War II, Gardner, by then 59 years-old, served the war effort again this time as a member of the Military Geology Unit. She became the leader of a group known as "The Dungeon Gang" and her expertise helped locate the Japanese military’s launch sites for balloon-borne incendiary bomb attacks against the U.S. Pacific Northwest, by analyzing seashells in the balloons’ sand ballast.  

The sand ballast inside the balloons contained seashells that originated from specific coastal regions. Gardner’s expert eyes could recognize these shells and traced their origins. By studying the types of molluscs represented in the seashells, she could pinpoint the exact locations where the balloons were launched. 


Two samples of beach sediment from Ichinomiya, Japan.
Two samples of beach sediment from Ichinomiya, Japan. This beach was the likely source for the sand used in the balloon bombs.



4. She researched fossils in the Coastal Plain. 


Although Gardner's initial research was of the upper cretaceous in Maryland, she devoted most of her career to studying the Tertiary beds of the Coastal Plain, including areas from Maryland south into Mexico.  


Studying the Tertiary beds provides crucial information about Earth’s geological layers to uncover data about how ecological changes and historic extinction events that helped shape our planet. 


Her skills came to the attention of the oil and gas industry, who sought her out as an expert in using fossil analysis to determine related layers of rock to help identify promising drilling locations. She began working in Texas in the early 1920s, often in consultation with petroleum company geologists, studying the structure and history of rock layers below the earth's surface to help locate areas that may contain deposits of oil and natural gas. 


Well-traveled and adventurous, Gardner’s fieldwork took her many places, including Mexico, to analyze fossils to date and compare geological layers. Her comprehensive research of Gulf Coast faunal stages, which is a series of rocks all containing similar fossils during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1945 the Geological Society of America published her findings entitled “Mollusca of the Tertiary Formations of Northeastern Mexico”. 

Fossil clams and snails
A collection of fossil clams and snails.


5. Her lasting legacy includes a state fossil named after her. 


Gardner left behind an extensive body of work. Many of her publications are considered standards of reference regarding Tertiary strata in North and South America. A notable example was the bulletin she prepared for The Midway Group of Texas that identified her discovery of seventy new species of Texas fossils.  


Aside from her work she was fond of adventures around the world, and often championed the next generation of scientists and artists. 


Gardner died at her home in 1960 at the age of 78. A memorial written by the Geological Society of America spoke of her character by saying “she left no close relatives but she did leave a host of friends, none of whom will ever forget her.” 


Gardner was also immortalized with the naming of Ecphora gardnerae, a snail shell named in her honor.  In 1994 the state of Maryland designated it the official state fossil shell. 

Ecphora gardnerae, a snail shell named in honor of Julia Gardner.
Ecphora gardnerae, a snail shell named in honor of Julia Gardner.

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