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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Florence Bascom: The Many Facets of Geology’s “Stone Lady”

There is a special poetry in rocks available to a select few and utterly incomprehensible to absolutely everybody else. While ninety-nine pairs of eyes out of a hundred will glaze over when asked to look at a rock wall for more than two consecutive minutes, that one remaining pair can linger there for hours, pulling from the formations a saga of profound forces exerting their influence over unimaginable time scales. Commonly caricatured as the least dynamic of scientists (there is a joke about a biologist who switched fields to geology because algae proved just too fast-paced for her), in reality the ability to see epochs of change and conflict frozen in a thin layer of rock is just next-door to a super power, and there are few people whose shoulders deserve a cape quite as resolutely as the Stone Lady of Geology, Florence Bascom (1862-1945).

For three decades, based from the geology department at Bryn Mawr University that she created, Florence Bascom alternated summers of field geological studies that resulted in forty articles and seven monographs with autumns, winters, and falls of teaching the courses that inspired two generations of women to enter the field of geology as a powerful Bascom Block which carried her rigorous standards and passion for microscopic analysis deep into the Twentieth Century.

For somebody whose name is a virtual synonym for geological precision, however, it took Florence Bascom quite some time to come to her life’s purpose. Partly this was the fault of her age - as she herself pointed out, it is difficult to plot a resolute and linear life’s course when there are no models or august predecessors to base your life upon. What she lacked in predecessors, however, she made up for in family sympathy. She had the great fortune of possessing for a father a well-regarded philosophy professor who was unstintingly encouraging of her scientific efforts and well-placed enough to ease her way academically, and for a mother a committed suffragist and advocate for women’s educational and professional opportunities. While her contemporaries had to fight disapproval at home and struggle with breaking into an academic world that did its best to hide its inner workings from reforming eyes, Bascom felt the full advantage of constant familial support and a smoothed entry into an often forbidding academic climate.

Born in Williamstown, Massachusetts on Bastille Day, 1862, the trajectory of Bascom’s life was at least partially set when her father, John Bascom, was given the presidency of the University of Madison in 1874 and was a guiding force in making it a coeducational institution the following year. As a town, 1874 Madison, Wisconsin left much to be desired, but as an educational opportunity, the coeducational University there was fresh with promise. John Bascom was a steady advocate of women’s education, and when an advisory board asked him, in 1877, to lessen the educational opportunities available to women by creating specialized women’s tracks which would do less harm to their feminine frailties, he collected and compiled three years’ worth of health data at the university to show that, as a percentage, the women students took far fewer sick days each year than the men students, and that as such, if anybody should receive a softer course-load in deference to their fragile constitutions, it was the males.

The idea was quietly dropped.

Florence Bascom began attending the University of Madison in 1877, but as yet with no clear plan of what to study or why. She joined the Kappa Kappa Gamma society and the Laurea literary society, learned Greek, Latin, French and German (as ya do), and by 1882 had received two bachelor’s degrees, in arts and letters, though she had taken nothing beyond the minimum required courses in the sciences. But now that her degrees were behind her, the dire question that faced many educated women of the late nineteenth century swivelled its grim countenance upon her: What Now?

For a year, she had no answer to that question, and engaged herself with a diverse variety of activities, each fascinating in and of itself, but in the aggregate pointing nowhere particular: oil painting, horseback riding, bee keeping… To pull herself out of her compelling aimlessness she decided to apply to the Hampton Institute in Virginia for a teaching position, but upon failing to obtain the appointment she decided to take her father’s advice and return to the University of Madison to study geology with professor Roland Irving.

Irving had a reputation as a rigorous teacher and an innovator in the field of microscopical petrography, the division of geology concerned with minute analyses of the mineral composition and textural structure of thinly sliced rock samples via microscopical analysis. Under Irving’s instruction, Bascom mastered the techniques of petrography that would serve her well over her long career, and by 1884 she had obtained her degree in geology - her third Bachelor’s degree.

After a year of frustrating and largely unhappy teaching at the Hampton Institute, Bascom returned once again, on her father’s urging, to the University of Madison to try for her Master’s degree in geology. Here, she learned more about crystallography and lithology, and prepared her thesis, “The Sheet Gabbros of Lake Superior.” (Gabbros are dense igneous rock formations created when magnesium and iron rich magma cools slowly, and they make up a significant portion of our planet’s oceanic crust.) This thesis, which was never published, won her a Master’s Degree in 1887, at almost precisely the moment that her father was compelled to resign his position as president of the University, and to return to an uncertain financial future in Williamstown.

With the family finances in such a suddenly precarious state, Bascom felt the need to turn her education to the production of income, and took a teaching position first at Williamstown High School and then at Rockford Seminary, where she taught from 1889 to 1891 in circumstances both intoxicating and bedeviling. The Seminary’s science program had been masterfully developed by Mary Holmes (1850-1906), a fascinating figure in her own right who became the first woman fellow of the Geological Society of America in 1889, traveled the world collecting botanical and geological samples, and who taught at Rockford Seminary from 1877 to 1885 where her students included Hull House co-founder Jane Addams. Well-supplied materially thanks to generous donations and Holmes’s foundational work, the science department was deeply reluctant to properly staff itself, and so Bascom found herself teaching sprawling and varied course loads (including geology, chemistry, astronomy, zoology, botany, and a Bible class which she felt particularly outside her contracted work) for minimal pay.

By 1891, John Bascom’s financial situation had improved, and Florence felt more free to look into the next stage of her education, setting her sights on a university that did not, at that moment, accept women as PhD candidates, Johns Hopkins University. Founded in 1876, Hopkins allowed women to attend as special students, but they had to obtain special permission from each professor individually to be allowed to attend class or, failing that, to obtain private instruction, and were not eligible for scholarships or prizes. Fortunately, Bascom’s case was in the hands of the geologist George Williams who was, like Irving, a microscopical petrographer, and who had worked with Bascom in 1885 and 1886 on summer visits to Wisconsin. He had no reservations about accepting her application, and in April 1891 the Trustees voted to allow her to attend classes as long as she didn’t have official student status and didn’t pay any tuition.

It was under Williams’s guidance that Bascom would become the geologist she was truly meant to be. Up until this point in her career she had been what most 19th century women geologists were - an analyst and chart drafter whose work was confined to the laboratory because of the social impropriety of having a woman in the field unchaperoned among men. Williams, however, believed firmly that geology, if it is to be done properly, must be done by combining field exploration, laboratory analysis, and the production of detailed geological survey maps. Williams brought Bascom into the field, and established what would be her lifelong pattern of undertaking field work in the Summer while school was not in session, and then analyzing her results during the school year.

In June, 1892, Bascom went with Williams on her first field expedition, to the Bigham Copper MIne, and the two quickly came across a major find when they discovered that the rocks in the Monterey region that had been believed for years to be sedimentary were in fact of igneous origin. Williams wrote up their results in an 1892 article for the American Journal of Science which gave Bascom full credit for the work she had done, and for her efforts to map the geological features of the Monterey area, while in 1893 Bascom published her first solo paper, “The Structures, Origin and Nomenclature of the Acid Volcanic Rocks of South Mountain” for the Journal of Geology.

Her work deeply impressed Williams, who persuaded the Trustees that they should allow her to stay another year beyond the one they had initially granted in order to finish analyzing the results of her first studies. Once that permission was granted, it became that much harder to refuse to grant her the PhD that the quality of her work merited, and in May of 1893 she was permitted to sit for oral examinations, which she passed with resounding success. She was the first woman awarded a PhD by Johns Hopkins, and on the strength of her inorganic geology experience she was offered a position at Ohio State right away in the department of Edward Orton, where she stayed for two years until settling down to the department where she would spend the rest of her academic career at Bryn Mawr.

In 1894, Bascom became the second woman ever elected a fellow of the Geological Society of America (Holmes was the first), and shortly after she established herself at Bryn Mawr in 1895, she became the first woman hired as an assistant geologist to the United States Geological Survey, and in 1909 was the first woman full geologist at the USGS, in which capacity she wrote seven volumes detailing her surveys of the Piedmont area and Appalachian Mountains. During her time at Bryn Mawr, she wrote forty articles and mentored a new generation of dedicated women biologists, including Ida Ogilvie, Eleanora Bliss, Anna Jonas, Mary Porter, Julia Gardner, and Maria Stadnichenko. So profound was her influence that, in 1837, 8 of the 11 women fellows of the GSA were former Bascom students.

Bascom continued teaching until 1928, and working for the USGS until 1936. At her retirement dinner in 1928 she gave a speech detailing what she found so alluring in the study of geology:

The fascination of any search after truth lies not in the attainment, which at best is found to be very relative, but in the pursuit, where all the powers of the mind and character are brought into play and are absorbed into the task. One feels oneself in contact with something that is infinite and one finds a joy that is beyond expression in ‘sounding the abyss of science’ and the secrets of the infinite mind.

Florence Bascom, founder of a scientific generation and keen analyst of our planet’s deep past, died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945.


The main source for Bascom’s life is I.F. Smith’s The Stone Lady: A Memoir of Florence Bascom (1981) but it is damn near impossible to find. I’ve been looking for a copy for eight years and have yet to find one. Lacking that, there are two wonderful articles by Lois B. Arnold written for the journal Earth Sciences History in 1999 and 2000 which you can access if you have access to a handy database, “Becoming a Geologist: Florence Bascom in Wisconsin” and “Becoming a Geologist: Florence Bascom and Johns Hopkins.” For the latter part of her career, I’d point you to “Great Expectations: Florence Bascom (1842-1945) and the Education of Early US Women Geologists” by R.M. Clary & J.H. Wandersee (2007), which somewhat embarrassingly gets Florence Bascom’s birth year wrong by two decades in the title, but gets better after that.


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