FLORENCE BASCOM (1862-1945)

Bascom (in the flat white hat), courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection at the Smith College Archives

Bascom (in the flat white hat), courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection at the Smith College Archives

Florence Bascom was not a paleontologist per se, but she had an enormous impact on Earth science education for women. By the end of the 19th century, women’s and coeducational colleges had opened their doors, allowing more women to enter the sciences professionally, rather than just avocationally. In that respect, the founding of a number of elite women’s colleges, such as Vassar (1861), Smith (1871), and Bryn Mawr (1885) was significant; not only did they educate women in the sciences, but they hired them as well.

In fact, the first professionally active American woman geologist was university-trained Florence Bascom who founded the geology department at Bryn Mawr and was the first woman to hold an assistant geologist appointment with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Her student and professional geologist Ida Ogilvie described Bascom’s efforts in the 1890s: “Probably no one will ever know all the difficulties that she encountered, but little by little she achieved her purpose of making her department one of the best in the country.” Bascom was also the first woman to receive a PhD from Johns Hopkins University, though she was forced to sit behind a screen in her classes so as not to distract her fellow male students. She taught at several schools and universities before being hired in 1895 by Bryn Mawr College to found their geology department. There she mentored a generation of geologists and paleontologists. Bascom also researched and published on crystallography, mineralogy, and petrography.


Florence Bascom at Yellowstone Lake in 1915, courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection at the Smith College Archives

Florence Bascom at Yellowstone Lake in 1915, courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection at the Smith College Archives

Bascom was born in Williamstown, Massachusetts, the youngest of six children. Her father was a professor at Williams College and her mother was a woman’s rights activist and schoolteacher. They both supported the women’s suffrage movement and advocated coeducation. In 1874, her father became the president of the University of Wisconsin. The following year the university began to admit women and Bascom herself enrolled in 1877. She earned to bachelor’s degrees there before pursuing graduate education at Johns Hopkins University. She was the first woman to be awarded a PhD there, and the second woman in America to obtain a PhD in geology.