Ames, Blanche (1878–1969)

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Ames, Blanche (1878–1969)

Botanical illustrator, inventor, and crusader for women's rights. Born February 18, 1878, in Lowell, Massachusetts; died in North Easton, Massachusetts, in 1969; daughter and fourth of six children of Adelbert (a Civil War general, U.S. Senator, and governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction) and Blanche (Butler) Ames; graduated Rogers Hall School, Lowell, Massachusetts; awarded B.A., Smith College, 1899; married Oakes Ames, on May 15, 1900; children: Pauline (Mrs. Francis T.P. Plimpton); Oliver; Amyas; Evelyn (Mrs. John Paschall Davis).

The talent and accomplishments of Blanche Ames were overshadowed by her husband's more famous career as a renowned botanist. She was not only wife, mother, and a valued collaborator in her husband's work, but she also made her own distinctive mark on the world.

One of six children of a prominent and wealthy old New England family, Ames delighted her demanding parents by excelling in everything she attempted. She was a natural athlete, mastering tennis, golf, and yachting, and even played some football (out of the public eye, of course). Her career at Smith College, beginning in 1895, included art studies and a variety of extracurricular activities. She played basketball and was president of her class. A year after graduation, she married Oakes Ames, a young botany instructor at Harvard University. In a letter sent before their marriage, he wrote, "You and I are forming a contract … we have an equal voice." The couple made their home in a large estate in North Easton, Massachusetts, and began their collaboration with four children.

Her husband's study of orchids provided the perfect outlet for Ames' artistic talent, and she became involved in precisely illustrating the various species he identified. Over a period of 17 years, the couple published a definitive seven-volume series, Orchidaceae Illustrations and Studies of the Family Orchidaceae. Oakes Ames went on to become the leading orchidologist of his day. He was the Arnold Professor of Botany at Harvard, the director of the Botanical Museum, and the supervisor of the Arnold Arboretum.

In addition to her painstaking, time-consuming work over a drawing board, Ames devoted hours to her own oil painting, some of which is displayed at Phillips Exeter Academy, Columbia University, and Dartmouth College. She was also active on the political front. As a staunch suffragist, she set her artist's pen to a number of political cartoons. As a co-founder of the Birth Control League of Massachusetts, she wrote and illustrated pamphlets describing methods for homemade diaphragms and spermicidal jelly. Oakes Ames took up the political banner as well, heading a men's suffrage league and lobbying at the 1914 Republican National Convention for suffrage.

Ames' interests and imagination were wideranging. She invented and patented several unlikely devices, including an antipollution toilet, a hexagonal lumber cutter, and a snare for catching low-flying enemy planes during World War II. "For her to have an idea was to act," said her daughter Pauline, "no matter how difficult or how impossible."

Ames outlived her husband by 19 years. One of her final accomplishments before her death at age 91 was the completion of a book about her father's career, Adelbert Ames, 1835–1933: Broken Oaths and Reconstruction in Mississippi, which she published in 1964.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

suggested reading:

Plimpton, Pauline. Oakes Ames: Jottings of a Harvard Botanist, 1874–1950. Cambridge, Botanical Museum and the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, distributed by Harvard University Press, 1908.


Ames' papers are in the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Ames, Blanche (1878–1969)

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