Welcome to the second instalment of our Women in Geoscience Series! This month we celebrate the legendary contributions of Dr Florence Bascom, a true pioneer of female geologists.
Dr Florence Bascom
The first women geologist of the United States – a true pioneer and a woman of many firsts:
- First women to be hired by the United States Geological Survey.
- First women to receive a PhD of any kind from John Hopkins University, and the second women to earn a PhD in geology from an American university.
- First women officer of the Geological Society of America (GSA).
Florence was introduced to Geology at a young age as her father, Dr John Bascom, a professor at Williams College, encouraged her to explore geology as a profession. After an earlier degree in Arts and Letters, she earned a Bachelor of Science in 1884 before obtaining a master’s degree in 1887.
While also studying geology, Florence worked as a teacher, first at Rockford College from 1887-1889 teaching mathematics and science, and later at Ohio State University from 1893-1895. In 1893, she became the second women to earn a PhD in Geology and the first women ever to receive a PhD from Johns Hopskins University. During her PhD study Florence famously had to sit behind a screen so as not to distract her male peers.
Florence was an expert in mineralogy, petrography and crystallography. Her work studying the crystalline rocks of eastern Appalachian Piedmont Range is valued to this day. Bascom was the first to challenge the classification of these rocks as sediments. She argued they represented altered volcanic rocks and proposed new nomenclature to describe them including “Apor-hyolite”. Florence also made notable contributions to the understanding of the geology of Pennsylvania by compiling detailed stratigraphic records across the province. This work influenced the thinking of many geologists regarding erosion cycles and their frequency. Bascom’s work across the region also gave rise to new understanding of mountain-building processes.
In 1985 Bascom was recruited at Byrn Mawr College, then a women’s college, in Pennsylvania. However, teaching wasn’t enough and in 1896, she became the first women to work for the United States Geological Survey. Florence spent her summers in the field before returning to Bryn Mawr for the school term. In 1901, Florence founded Bryn Mawr’s department of Geology where she taught and guided generations of female geologists. In 1937, 8 out of 11 women fellows of the Geological Society of America were graduates of Bascom’s course. Bascom believed in women’s ability to overcome any obstacle that lay in their path upholding high standards both for herself and her pupils.
“When any woman manifests an interest in the science of geology I am always glad to tell her of its possibilities and she makes her own choice. Not only must a girl have the mental aptitude for scientific research, but also physical strength and great physical courage. Then too she must be strong in the conviction that it is the work she really wants to do” Dr Florence Bascom
The course at Bryn Mawr College became known as the most rigorous and hardest training courses throughout the early half of the 20th century and was responsible for training the largest number of female American geologists at the time.
Bascom was the first female geologist to present a paper at the Geological Survey of Washington in 1901 and the first women elected to the council of the Geological Society of America in 1924. For over 20 years no other women was elected to the council. She also became the first women officer of the Geological Society of America and in 1930 became the second Vice-President. She was an associate editor of the American Geologist (1896–1905) and became highly regarded among her male peers having been voted as one of the top 100 leading geologists in the country in the first edition of American Men of Science (1906).
After a long and influential teaching career, Bascom retired in 1928 but continued to work for the USGS until 1936. Throughout her career she published more than 40 articles on petrography, geomorphology and gravel. Today, a number of entities are named in honour of Dr Bascom including the Bascom Crater on Venus, an asteroid discovered in 1985, the 6084 Bascom, and Bascom Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Photos: Sophia Smith College Library Collection