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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Summing the Natural Order: The Taxonomy and Ornithology of Graceanna Lewis, Quaker.

In the mid 19th century, American biological science was tentatively feeling its way forward along a half dozen different and contradictory directions as it gamely attempted to figure out just what it was supposed to be doing. Amateur collectors, museum curators, religious theorists, and a small but budding professional class all proffered their unique vision about what biology was and where it ought to go, and in the chaos of swirling convictions it was difficult for individual naturalists to plot a steady course forward, particularly for researchers of an already marginalized status.

The currents and counter-currents of 19th century biology kept its practitioners in a state of constant ill-balance, affecting the popularity and impact of their work as fashion waxed and waned from year to year, with long term repercussions on their place in scientific history. We remember, and always will, the Quaker astronomer Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), but have almost entirely forgotten her contemporary and fellow Quaker naturalist, Graceanna Lewis (1821-1912).

While Mitchell worked steadily and resolutely at her task of mapping the night sky in accord with long-standing practices, Lewis’s life consisted of a long and difficult attempt to reconcile her desire to catalogue the structure and behavior of biological organisms with a religious need to reconcile Darwin with Christianity by constructing large theoretical systems of natural creation. Those who appreciated the former rarely did so the latter, and vice versa, and so Lewis, though one of the most well-known woman naturalists of her day, found few whole-hearted supporters of her work to carry its legacy beyond her own death.

Graceanna Lewis was born in 1821 to a Pennsylvania Quaker family whose land had been deeded to them personally by William Penn a century and a half previously. They were a fiercely abolitionist clan, and had a long standing tradition of support for attempts to break the economic hold of slavery on the United States, including organized boycotts of slavery-derived products. The Lewis farm was a crucial hub on the Underground Railroad, where fugitive marriages took place, disguises were distributed, and elaborate plans were laid and enacted to ensure that families could safely disperse and reunite in the North.

While their belief in the equality of all humans caused the Quakers to consider abolitionism a moral imperative, it also gave them a unique belief in the capacities of women, and the need to provide a thorough education for them. Lewis was, like her sisters, sent to the Kimberton Boarding School for Girls, a progressive institution that believed in teaching girls astronomy, botany, and chemistry. One of the teachers at that school was Abigail Kimber, a botanist who trained Lewis in the identification and classification of species, and in 1842, when her uncle set up a boarding school of his own in York, Pennsylvania, he brought Lewis on as an instructor of botany and astronomy.

Her uncle’s school closed after two years and, after another term teaching at a school in Phoenixville, Lewis, now 24, returned to the family farm to plan what to do next with her life. In this task she was aided by her close friendship with Mary Towsend who, in 1844, had anonymously published her book Life in the Insect World: or, Conversations upon Insects Between an Aunt and her Nieces. Mary and Graceanna were intensely attached to one another, Mary even living at the Lewis farm for some sixteen months, and when she died in 1851, it cast Lewis into a crisis of direction. What was she to do with herself? She resolved to create works of natural history, like her departed friend had done, and began teaching herself ornithology from the era’s most popular guides.

That study, however, had to be woven in and around the larger problems presented by running the family estate. Her father had died in 1824, and her mother had been a genius at running the farm in his absence, even noticing particular soil variations which led her to conclude that a small mining operation on the land might be profitable, which indeed it was. But with her mother’s death in 1848, and the steady decline of her sisters, one of whom would be dead by 1863, and another by 1866, the problem of keeping the farm going fell increasingly to Graceanna, whose mind tended towards utopian collectivist dreams rather than pragmatic solutions to dwindling crop yield.

Between the failing health of family members and the difficulties with the land, it was a full decade before Lewis had an opportunity to study biology in systematic earnest. In 1862, she met John Cassin, who stood in the front-most rank of American ornithologists, and who was the curator of birds at the Academy of Natural Sciences. A self-taught Quaker like Lewis, he had a reputation for technical precision and had discovered 194 new species by dint of his sharp eye for structural variation. He took Lewis on as his only student and by 1866 he was proudly telling his colleagues of biological structures she had noticed that had entirely escaped his observation.

By 1868, Lewis felt she had enough of a grasp on the structure and classification of birds to begin publishing what was to be her great work, her testament to the memory and example of Mary Townsend, a ten volume Natural History of Birds. One aim of the book was to do for birds what Townsend had done for insects, showing them not only in their structure but in their living habits and behaviors in a way accessible to an educated lay audience. Another, perhaps conflicting, aim of the book was to elaborate a new classification scheme that showed the unity of the Christian god’s plan by deriving new categories from similarities in egg structure, newborn capabilities, and nesting plumage.

By attempting to combine the living charm of Townsend’s work with the theologically-inspired Naturphilosophie of America’s reigning naturalist, Luis Agassiz, Lewis ended up with a book that satisfied neither the lay audience, for whom the classification system was too involved, nor the professional biologist, for whom the leaps of theory were too speculative, and Lewis never went ahead with plans to publish the subsequent volumes. To add professional inertia and personal tragedy to the academic indifference with which her book was met, Lewis’s application to teach natural history at Vassar was turned down in 1868 in spite of a recommendation from ornithologist Spencer Baird, and in 1869 Cassin died.

Cut off from a job that would have provided a steady basis from which to deepen her research, particularly into microscopic studies of the structure of plumage (some of which she published in 1871’s Symmetrical Figures in Birds’ Feathers), Lewis had to make do with the opportunities that came to her, teaching at prep schools from 1870-71 and 1883-85, and giving lectures to dwindling audiences of amateur nature enthusiasts and women’s clubs about her studies of birds and larger biological theories. By 1875, she was in desperate financial straits and had to sell the family farm, and her position did not materially improve until a family member married well in 1881 and was able to give her a $20 per week stipend to live from.

Her teacher dead, her professional advancement blocked, her book forgotten, her family land sold, it would have been forgiven if Graceanna Lewis had simply folded herself, at the age of fifty-five, into a peaceful retirement, but she had one massive volley still left in her, a chart organizing the entire animal kingdom in an attempt to show how magnetic, crystallizing, and other physical forces combined in a grand plan of the creator to drive organisms to the state of perfection represented by man. This system was anchored in the academic fashion for phyllotaxis that thrived in the 1860s and 1870s and which believed that nature could be elucidated through a close mathematical analysis of common ratios, as those revealed in the Fibonacci Sequence (1,1,2,3,5,8,13…). Once again, Lewis had hitched her own wealth of valuable insights and observations to a passing intellectual fashion (though one that would gain renewed life a century later), and once again, the demise of that fashion would ensure the increasing dismissal of her works in the decades to come.

Though she would continue to revise her charts over the remaining four decades of her life, her removal from the increasingly professionalized circles where new discoveries were announced and discussed meant that she would only fall further and further behind accepted practice and theory, and when she emerged in later life, it was primarily for her artistic work, as with a set of fifty watercolors of tree leaves she completed for the Pennsylvania Forestry Commission in 1893.

In 1885, Lewis moved to Media, Pennsylvania to be closer to family, and remained there until her death in 1912, living frugally and involving herself with programs to improve the local primary education system. She was active into her 90th year when, one Tuesday, she suffered a stroke, and died the following Sunday, her passing noted in Quaker publications and the New York Times before history folded over her in silence, there to remain for a century.


It was not until 1979 that Lewis’s life was brought comprehensively back to the public gaze, in the form of Deborah Jean Warner’s Graceanna Lewis: Scientist and Humanitarian, which is long out of print but still findable for a decent price. In the 42 years since that date, there hasn’t been a new book-length appreciation of her life, though every five years or so there’s been an article of some sort or other in specialty Quaker or ornithological publications. I think, largely, we don’t know what to do with her, because she doesn’t fit the idea of Scientist we’ve come to develop over the 20th century, and which Maria Mitchell more readily represents, but just because she’s harder to grasp doesn’t mean we should stop trying to and if some one among you out there wants to take up the task and breathe life into her once again, it would be a most honorable labor indeed.

This story was originally published as the 192nd column in the Women in Science Series.


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