I’ll ask no thing of man or king…

To wrap up Earth Science Week it seemed appropriate to mention the pioneering geologist and professor, Florence Bascom.


When she got her doctorate in geology in 1893, Bascom was the first woman to obtain a doctorate from Johns Hopkins.


She was the second woman to have a PhD in geology in the United States. (The first was Mary Emilee Holmes, University of Michigan, 1888.*) She is also credited with being the first woman to be hired by the United States Geological Service, the first woman to present a scientific paper at the Geological Society of Washington, and the first female officer of the Geological Society of America.

Florence Bascom was born in 1862. Her father was a professor who supported college education for women (in 1874 he became president of the University of Wisconsin, in 1875 the program began admitting women), her mother a teacher and suffragist. They encouraged her to continue her education.


After earning her Bachelor of Arts and letters and Bachelor of Science degrees she taught college classes in Ohio before going for her masters’ degree in geology, then returned to teaching before deciding to pursue a doctorate.


Bascom petitioned Johns Hopkins to let her into their PhD program. The president of Johns Hopkins was against the coeducation of women, but she persisted. With the support of her professors and several degrees from the University of Wisconsin she was eventually accepted, though she was forced to sit behind a screen in the corner of the classroom to avoid distracting the male students. (The more things change…)


In her dissertation she studied a layer of rocks thought to be sedimentary and proved under microscopic analysis that they had started life as lava flows, not sediment. Her interest in that area led to her studying the development of mountain belts. This included geomorphology, how the shape of the earth we see is related to its underlying geology.


In 1895 she founded the geology department at Bryn Mawr College, going head to head with its president about encouraging field work and physical activity. She eventually created a program that ran from undergraduate major to full PhD and educated almost every female geologist of the era.


In 1896 she was hired by the USGS to spend the summer months as an assistant geologist to map the geology of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey. In 1909 she was promoted to geologist.


She taught full time, created a curriculum, and continued active research and field work. In her work for the USGS she created geological maps for a good portion of the US. Her fieldwork is still referenced today.


As noted in Trowelblazers, her work was respected enough that in the first edition of ‘American Men of Science’ in 1906 she was listed as one of the hundred top leading geologists. (Later editions featured several of her female students, yet the publication didn’t change its name until the 1970s.)


She retired from Bryn Mawr in 1928, but work for the USGS until 1936. She died in 1945.


She was a brilliant and independent woman. The National Parks Service quoted a verse from her papers:


The Hut

A hut and a tree

And a hill for me!

A dog, a horse, and upland meadows,

And I’ll ask no thing

Of man or king

Save to clear away their shadows.


*Mary Emilee Holmes was the first woman to earn a PhD in geology and also the first woman to be elected a member of the Geological Society of America.


She was educated, and then taught at, Rockford Female Seminary. In 1885 she left to do graduate work at the University of Michigan-earning her M.A in Literature and then her PhD in Geology.


Though a geologist by training, she became known as a botanical authority and specimen collector. Her scientific career ended up being brief-essentially over by 1892. Despite becoming a member of the Geological Society of America, geology was still considered the domain of men. It would be Florence Bascom who first managed a career as a professor and professional geologist.

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Filed under Historical Facts and Trivia, Natural Science

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