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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Death and Time: The Pioneering Biostratigraphy of Julia Anna Gardner.

On a lonely stretch of Florida swamp road, in the year 1920, a model T Ford with no headlights and two hastily replaced tires is trying to make its way through the thick night.  The driver is a hero of the recent World War (though she would never call herself such) and is on her way to becoming the country’s reigning expert in the application of fossil techniques to petroleum geology, but at the moment, she is simply Julia Gardner, newly minted motorist and field worker for the United States Geological Survey.  

Fortunately Gardner (1882-1960) is a person of both unique luck and fortitude, the latter a handy trait for when the former is in temporarily reduced supply.  This trip, her luck has held, and when her second tire blew out, a truck passing on an otherwise empty road sold her a second spare, but just as often in the years to come, she will find herself sleeping in her car, or a local farmhouse, or a stranger’s spare room, when her journeys across the country in search of the unifying elements of American stratological layers take her far from the welcoming arms of home and hotel. 

Of her early years we know astoundingly little.  Born in Chamberlain, South Dakota, her father died either when she was four months or ten years old, leaving her the only child of a single mother in a hardscrabble late nineteenth century American small town.  Mother and daughter moved to North Adams, Massachusetts when Gardner was fourteen, where Gardner was able to attend Drury Academy, founded in 1843 and housed in an imposing three floor brick structure.  The Academy had a reputation for excellence, and allowed Gardner to attend Bryn Mawr College, where geology legend Florence Bascom had founded a department of geology in 1895.  

Bascom started her career as a petrography expert, schooled in the microscopic analysis of thin sections of rock, and had become in 1894 the second woman ever elected to the Geological Society of America.  A rigorous and inspiring teacher, Bascom remained for three decades at Bryn Mawr, authoring over forty articles from her off-season field research, and making Bryn Mawr’s geology department a national center for women seeking careers in geology. 

Gardner received her Bachelor’s degree in 1905, and her Master’s in 1907 before heading to Johns Hopkins for her PhD work.  Bascom had attended Hopkins beginning in 1891 as a non-paying special student without official status, and in 1911 Gardner became the first woman admitted as a regular student to Johns Hopkins’s Department of Geology, where she worked on the molluscan fauna of the Upper Cretaceous period, i.e. the gastropods and bivalves which lived 100 to 66 million years ago.  

It was a smart choice of specialty - each distinct species of mollusc exists, on the geologic scale, only a short amount of time, and therefore molluscs are very useful in dating the rock strata where they are found, making them good “index fossils.”  The use of biological remains to date and compare geological layers in different regions is called biostratigraphy, and from 1915 to 1917 Gardner honed her skills in the field while working for the U.S. National Museum on a USGS contract.  In 1917, however, the United States entered the First World War, and Gardner joined a Red Cross unit shipping out to France, working with the American Canteen Service and as an auxiliary nurse in ambulance units and hospitals close to the front.  At war’s end, she stayed on in France as a member of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization dedicated to helping French civilians whose lives had been impacted by the First World War.  

Gardner did not return to the United States until 1920, when she found employment with the Geological Society of America to conduct large scale surveys to correlate the faunas found in rock layers from the Tertiary Era (66 to 2.6 million years ago) in locations as far flung as Florida, Virginia, Mexico, North Carolina, and Texas.  In 1924, her skills came to the attention of the oil and gas industry, who sought her out as an expert in using fossil analysis to determine related layers of rock.  

At the time, oil companies sought to use information about rock layers where oil had been shown to exist to make educated guesses about where to drill next, and when to give up drilling in a particular location.  One of the methods they employed, pioneered by Fanny Carter Edson (1887-1952) involved looking at representative heavy mineral formations to form correlations between rock layers at different locations.  Gardner’s biostratigraphy represented another line of approach, and she found her services in high demand by a petroleum industry seeking to take some of the wildness out of “wildcat” drilling practices.  

Handling upwards of ten major petroleum requests a year, Gardner also found time to author over forty scholarly papers on biostratigraphy and micropaleontolgy, primarily of the Coastal Plain region, over thirty of which featured her as the sole author (most of her field work being done alone, hopping from site to site in whatever half-functioning vehicle she could scrounge up), to complete five major reports detailing thousands of molluscan fauna and their corresponding relationships to geological layers, to work for the Geologic Map of Texas project, and to coordinate with the likes of Dorothy Palmer, Esther Applin, and Helen Plummer in the emerging field of micropaleontological investigations.  

In 1941, the United States entered the Second World War and Gardner, now fifty-nine, found a way to put her expertise at the service of the war effort by joining the Military Geology Unit, leading a sub-unit that came to be called The Dungeon Gang, tasked with describing the geologic features of proposed combat zones and describing means of establishing and maintaining invasion beachheads.  She also famously used her knowledge of mollusc varieties to look at shells found in the sand used for ballast in Japanese bomb-balloons, such as the one that killed six people when it dropped its payload on Eastern Oregon on May 5, 1945, to determine which beaches the sand came from and therefore where the bombs were likely being manufactured.  

After the war, just as she had upon the conclusion of World War I, she did what she could in the arduous process of restoring civilization to a war-torn area, this time joining the National Resources Section of the Headquarters of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan to encourage and restore relations with Japanese scientists on their road to recovery.  Her time in Japan was cut short in 1947, however, because of her refusal to follow certain military rules, in particular one against sharing her US ration of cigarettes with Japanese colleagues.  Returning to the United States, she continued her studies in coastal strata until her retirement.  Her work on molluscan fauna and the stratigraphy of the Coastal Plain was printed and reprinted during her life, a standard source for generations of geologists to come, who returned the favor by naming three fossil species after her - Calyptrophora julia, Ecphora gardnerae (Maryland’s state fossil), and Chicoreus juligardnerae.  At her retirement celebration, she was presented with two bound volumes containing letters from 168 geologists from Mexico to France and Japan to Australia, expressing their appreciation for her life’s work and her personal friendship.  She died after a long illness in 1960, at the age of 78.


You can find the 1962 Geographical Society of America Memorial to Julia Anna Gardner online, but if you want a really interesting book for the shelves that contains a substantial chapter on her work, I’d recommend Anomalies: Pioneering Women in Petroleum Geology: 1917-2017 by Robbie Rice Gries.  It has dozens of interesting portraits of women working in a branch of science we don’t often think about, including most of the other women geologists mentioned above.  If that piques your interest, you can go onto Breaking the Gas Ceiling by Rebecca Ponton - it’s a book about women in the offshore oil and gas industry published a couple of years ago.  It won’t give you anything on Gardner, but talks about some pioneers in an interesting and controversial field. 


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