Chase, Mary Agnes

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Mary Agnes Chase

Mary Agnes Chase (1869–1963) devoted her life to the study of grasses, working in the field as well through the Smithsonian Institution's National Herbarium to expand existing knowledge about the plant she claimed "holds the world together."

Botanist, author, and agrostologist—specialist in grasses—Chase traveled the world to collect and catalogue more than 10,000 species of grasses, many of which she also discovered. Beginning her career in a Chicago museum, she eventually gained positions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and went on to oversee the National Museum Herbarium, now a part of the Smithsonian Institution. An active prohibitionist and feminist, Chase was also an enthusiastic mentor to many young women attempting to establish careers in botany during the early 20th Century.

An Independent Student

Chase was born Mary Agnes Meara in Iroquois County, Illinois, on April 20, 1869, the second child born to Martin Meara and Mary Cassidy Brannick Meara. Her father, born in Ireland and a blacksmith for the railroad, died when she was only two. To support her five children, Mary Meara moved her family north to Chicago, to live with her own mother.

Chase was a small-boned child. Even in adulthood she was under five feet and never weighed more than 98 pounds. Chase was nonetheless robust and energetic. After finishing grammar school, she had to get work to help support her family. A scholarly child, she found a job suitable to her meticulous, single-minded nature: working as a proofreader and typesetter at a small magazine for country schoolteachers called the School Herald. This job led to her meeting William Ingraham Chase, the magazine's 34-year-old editor, and a romance quickly followed. In January 1888 the couple was married. Tragically, William Chase contracted tuberculosis and was dead within the year, leaving 19-year-old Chase a widow saddled with debt.

No stranger to tough times, Chase found a night job proofreading copy for the Inter-Ocean newspaper. She lived a no-frills life in Chicago and survived on a modest diet that often consisted of beans and oatmeal. When her time allowed it, she moonlighted at a general store owned by her brother-in-law. At the store she struck up a strong friendship with her nephew, Virginius Chase, and discovered that she shared the boy's interest in plant identification. Chase became increasingly fascinated by botany and read voraciously on the subject. She also went out into more rural areas around Chicago whenever she could, keeping notebooks in which she sketched plants and wrote about what she observed. When she could afford to, she also enrolled in extension courses in botany at the University of Chicago and the Lewis Institute.

During one of her trips into the country Chase encountered a fellow plant lover in the Reverend Ellsworth Hill. Hill, who was interested in mosses, was impressed by Chase's botanical drawings as well as by the woman's enthusiasm. He suggested that she meet with Charles Frederick Millspaugh, director of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. In 1901 Millspaugh offered Chase a part-time job as an illustrator for two museum publications, one of them being Plantae Yucatanae. Because these drawings often required the rendering of minute botanical details, Chase learned how to use a microscope, a skill she quickly capitalized on by getting a full-time position as a meat inspector for a Chicago stockyard.

Chase and Hill maintained their friendship for many years, and she illustrated several of his scientific reports on mosses. Realizing that working in a stockyard was no way for a woman of Chase's talents to spend her life, in 1903 Hill encouraged his friend to apply for a position as a botanical illustrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Bureau of Plant Sciences, located in Washington, D.C. Awarded the job, Chase set about providing botanical illustrations for the bureau's many publications and took advantage of her position to spent much of her free time at the USDA's herbarium, where she pursued a growing interest in the study of grasses.

Professional Collaboration

While working on botanical renderings at the USDA's herbarium, Chase met scientist Albert Spear Hitchcock, and in 1907 she went to work as Hitchcock's scientific assistant in his study of systematic agrostology—the study of grass culture. In her working relationship with Hitchcock, which lasted until his death in December 1935, Chase was able to fully indulge her curiosity about plant life, and the many thousands of specimens she collected during her field expeditions contributed to the veteran scientist's magnum opus, 1935's A Manual of the Grasses of the United States. Chase would later update this work by Hitchcock, publishing a revised edition in 1951.

An energetic woman, Chase was not content to remain in the laboratory. The first field work she performed for the USDA led her to the southeastern United States and resulted in two books coauthored with Hitchcock: 1910's The North American Species of Panicum and 1915's Tropical North American Species of Panicum.

Even though she was employed by a government department, the federal budget did not include many frills, so Chase covered many of the expenses resulting from her plant-hunting expeditions on her own. Her independent study had already resulted in one published paper—on the genera Paniceae—and other writing opportunities also came her way, enabling her to survive financially while also traveling. In 1913 she journeyed south to Puerto Rico, collected various grasses, and discovered a new species of fern, among other things; her work there led to 1917's Grasses of the West Indies, coauthored with Hitchcock.

As an agrostologist working for the federal government, Chase's duties extended beyond research, writing, and classification. The USDA had developed a large grass collection under its first director, George Vasey. While Chase and Hitchcock contributed wild species, commercially developed strains were also catalogued and studied. Chase spent much of her time performing such tasks to ensure that these newly introduced commercial grasses and other forage plants were not marketed using fraudulent claims. She also made recommendations regarding feed grass for livestock. Beginning in 1923 Chase also served as assistant custodian of the grass herbarium, which had been transferred from the USDA to the United States National Museum (USNM; now the Smithsonian Institution) in October 1912.

Chase published her self-illustrated A First Book of Grasses: The Structure of Grasses Explained for Beginners in 1922; the 127-page book was twice revised, was translated into Spanish in 1960 by Zoraida Luces de Febres, and is now considered a classic. "Grass is what holds the earth together," she wroted in the book. "Grass made it possible for the human race to abandon his cave life and follow herds.… Grasses have been so successful in the struggle for existence that they have a wider geographic range than any other plant family, and they occupy all parts of the earth." Released while its author was in Europe visiting plant collections, A First Book of Grasses resulted in her promotion a year later to assistant botanist.

Two years later, in November 1924, the 56-year-old Chase joined Brazilian botanists Paulo Campos Porto and María Bandeira and embarked on her first trip to eastern Brazil, where for six months she traveled by foot, donkey, and train throughout the mountainous rain forest region near Mt. Itatiaia, collecting 500 new species of grass and more than 19,000 other specimens. Four years later, in 1929, she returned to the Brazilian jungle, this time as associate botanist, and spent a year exploring the terrain and discovering more new species. Through her efforts, thousands of Brazil's grasses were discovered and classified; Chase is also credited by some as being the first woman to climb the region's highest mountain. Many years later, in 1940, the 71-year-old Chase would accept an invitation from the Venezuelan government to come to that country and assist in developing a range management program.

In early 1936 Chase was promoted to senior botanist in charge of systematic agrostology at the USDA's Bureau of Plant Industry, taking over the role of her late mentor, Hitchcock. Her duties at the USNM also expanded when, in 1937, she was appointed custodian of the Grass Herbarium. Although she retired from her position at the USDA in April 1939, she continued working long hours as a herbarium research associate at the USNM's plant division and retained her custodial duties at the herbarium under the title honorary custodian until near her death.

A Dedicated Feminist

In addition to her passion for grasses, Chase was passionate about woman's rights. Once she was established in her field, she aided the careers of many young botanists with encouraging correspondence. She even offered some the chance to board temporarily at her home, which she affectionately called "Casa Contenta." From 1918 until ratification of the 14th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote in August 1920, Chase was active in the suffragist movement. In January 1915 she was among those arrested for maintaining a continuous fire fed by copies of all of President Woodrow Wilson's speeches that referred to liberty or freedom. In the summer of 1918 she was arrested for picketing in front of the White House and in another case had to be force-fed during a hunger strike protest. Chase's radicalism sometimes proved problematic, and at one point it resulted in a threat of dismissal from the USDA.

A committed socialist and activist, Chase worked for the ratification of the amendment supporting Prohibition. She was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, The Fellowship for Reconciliation, the National Woman's Party, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

In her own field, Chase's efforts were rewarded in 1956 by the Botanical Society of America, which presented her with a certificate honoring her as "one of the world's outstanding agrostologists and preeminent among American students in this field." Two years later the 89-year-old botanist received an honorary degree from the University of Illinois, a meaningful gesture for a woman who never earned a college degree. In the late 1950s she was also made a fellow of both the Smithsonian Institution and the Linnean Society.

Chase died at age 94, on September 24, 1963, shortly after being admitted to a nursing home in Bethesda, Maryland. At her death she left a three-volume annotated index to the thousand of grass species she had identified and classified for the USDA. Her 1951 revision of Hitchcock's Manual of the Grasses of the United States remains the definitive source on the subject. Chase's papers are collected at the Hunt Institute for Biological Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University, and her field notebooks are housed at the Hitchcock-Chase Library of the Smithsonian Institution.


Bonta, Marcia Myers, Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists, Texas A & M University Press, 1991.

Chase, Agnes, A First Book of Grasses: The Structure of Grasses Explained for Beginners, Macmillan, 1922, 3rd revised edition, 1968, revised by Lynn G. Clark and Richard W. Pohl, Smithsonian Institution, 2001.

Dictionary of American Biography, Seventh Supplement, 1961–1965, American Council of Learned Societies, 1981.

Notable Women Scientists, Gale, 2000.


Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1926.

New York Times, June 12, 1956.


Museum of Natural History, (December 6, 2003).