A new Science

It was in one of the more economically important fields of geology that women paleontologists had what turned out to be the biggest long-term impact. In the first decades of the twentieth century, and especially during World War I, the growing demand for petroleum stimulated interest in micropaleontology (the study of fossils of single-celled and other very small organisms) as a tool for correlating the rock layers in which oil is found. It was a new science; micropaleontology courses were soon taught at several colleges and universities, including the University of Texas at Austin.

Esther Richards Applin, 1944

Esther Richards Applin, 1944

There, Professor Francis Luther Whitney (1878-1962) had a number of female students, including two women – Alva Ellisor (1892-1964) and Esther Applin (1895-1972) – who eventually became the leading economic micropaleontologists in the US. In a study of early 20th century women paleontologists, 10 of 20 worked for oil companies. Like other new fields of science, micropaleontology was more open to women than the established disciplines, which were likely to be “old boys’ clubs”. It was also a more welcoming atmosphere because of its setting—micropaleontological work took place in a quiet laboratory, rather than a rough, dirty fieldsite. For example, when Winifred Goldring asked about a field position at the USGS in 1928, she was turned away, as they wanted a “he-man” paleontologist.

Micropaleontology also required patient attention to tiny details, a skill often attributed to women, at the time. A 1926 article in the LA Times reinforced the stereotype: “A larger number of women attended the present convention than any previous national meeting of petroleum geologists, and the science is bringing more and more women into the fold. Especially in the highly specialized fields of the science, such as paleontology, seismography and stratigraphy, which require attention to minute scientific details, are the women said to be gaining prominence.”

Micropaleontologists Alva Ellisor, Esther Applin, and Hedwig Kniker (left to right) in 1921. These three women proposed the concept of using microfossils to locate petroleum.

Micropaleontologists Alva Ellisor, Esther Applin, and Hedwig Kniker (left to right) in 1921. These three women proposed the concept of using microfossils to locate petroleum.

An illustration of fossil foraminifera, as viewed under a microscope.

An illustration of fossil foraminifera, as viewed under a microscope.

The curator of micropaleontology, courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

The curator of micropaleontology, courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.