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This year marks the sesquicentennial of the historic journey that John Wesley Powell and his nine-man crew undertook to explore the Green and Colorado rivers in their epic journey to explore the great rivers of the West. But were any women involved in these efforts? Were there women doing field science? And how are women contributing to USGS science today?

In the 19th Century

Portrait of (Harriet) Emma Dean Powell
John Wesley Powell's wife (Harriet) Emma DeanPowell.Photo Courtesy Utah State Historical Society. 

At the start of the Civil War, 27-year-old John Wesley Powell married his 25-year-old cousin Emma Dean. She proved her character from the very beginning of their marriage, joining then 2nd Lt. Powell at Camp Girardeau near St. Louis where he was in charge of fortifying Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s camp.

Only weeks later, then Capt. Powell was injured during the Battle of Shiloh and had his arm amputated below the elbow. Emma was at the battlefield hospital and nursed him back to health. When Powell returned to service, Emma joined him.

After the war ended and Powell returned to teaching, Emma accompanied him and his students on their geologic and nature field trips throughout the 1860s and 70s. She was not listed as a scientist or recognized for her work in the field, still, it is likely that she was quite involved in the scientific enterprise. We do know that in 1867 she ascended Pike Peak, a 14,000-foot mountain near Denver, and that she was the lead ornithologist during an 1868 exploring expedition, identifying and cataloguing 175 species of birds that they collected.

Powell’s sister Ellen “Nellie” Thompson also accompanied the group on some of his expeditions. She was married to Almon Harris Thompson, a surveyor and geologist who was second in command of Powell’s 1871-2 expedition. Nellie was an accomplished botanist, and in 1872 described many of the plants she found in Utah. In the winter of 1871-2, both Nellie and Emma, with newborn Mary Dean Powell, joined the expedition at their winter camp.

Little notice was afforded women in science before the end of the 19th century; it was common for women to contribute to their husbands’ scientific work, like Emma and Nellie, without attribution. The USGS was established in 1879 and hired its first woman scientist in 1896. Florence Bascom had been the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University (1893) and only the second American woman to earn a Ph.D. in the geosciences. She worked at the USGS as a geologist through 1936.

The first women to float the river through the Grand Canyon were, like Nellie Thompson, botanists. Dr. Elzada Clover, from the University of Michigan, and graduate student Lois Jotter, who would later earn her Ph.D. and teach at the University of North Carolina, conducted the first botanical survey of the river, along with a crew of five men, using three boats. Their survey covered 600 miles of river, from Green River, Utah, through the Grand Canyon. It was 1938, and times being what they were, in addition to doing all of the scientific work, the women did all of the cooking and other camp chores.

landscape view of crew surveying lands by Colorado River bank
Nellie Thompson is thought to be the woman sketching in the lower right foreground.(William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), 1936 (Oil on beaverboard). U.S. Department of the Interior Museum, INTR 03003)


In the 21st Century

Today, women are leaders in all fields of scientific endeavor. Although they have not achieved parity in many fields, a young woman today who aspires to be a scientist or engineer faces fewer barriers than her 19th century sisters.

At the USGS, hundreds of women scientists and science support staff contribute to the bureau’s mission. Two of the last three USGS directors were women, and seven former and current female scientists have been promoted to senior scientist for their exceptional achievements. Nine USGS women have received the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in the last 10 years.

USGS representation on the Powell 150 Expedition this year includes 13 women from across the organization, including research scientists, field technicians, and managers. As depicted from left to right in the above banner, they are: Katie Walton-Day, hydrologist; Tess Harden, hydrologist; Genevieve Barron, geographer; Heather Kerkering, science coordinator; Anne Ballman, wildlife disease specialist/field epidemiologist; Kathy Conn, water-quality hydrologist; Melissa Lombard, hydrologist; Christina Bryant, hydrologic technician and outreach coordinator; Janis LeMaster, hydrologic technician; Anya Metcalf, ecologist; Jaime Delano, geologist; Jessica Lucido, Program Manager; and Sharon Borland, chief, Office of Policy and Analysis. Conn, Walton-Day and Metcalf are the lead scientists on three of our data-collection studies during the expedition this summer.

To follow this USGS team as they journey down the river this summer, check out

collage of women in science
A Snapshot of Women of the U.S. Geological Survey in STEM and Related Careers, Circular 1443.  (Public domain.)



  1. A Snapshot of Women of the U.S. Geological Survey in STEM and Related Careers, Circular 1443.
  2. Cooley, John, ed., 1988, Exploring the Colorado River—Firsthand accounts of Powell and his crew: Mineola, N.Y., Dover Publications, Inc., 207 p.
  3. The Promise of the Grand Canyon, John Wesley Powell’s Perilous Journey and his Vision for the American West, by John F. Ross

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