Bascom, Florence (1862–1945)

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Bascom, Florence (1862–1945)

American geologist who was the first woman in America to earn a Ph.D. in geology and the first woman awarded a Ph.D. in any discipline by Johns Hopkins University. Born Florence Bascom on July 14, 1862, in Williamstown, Massachusetts; died in Northampton, Massachusetts, on June 18, 1945, of a cerebral hemorrhage; daughter of John (a philosopher and president of the University of Wisconsin) and Emma Curtiss (a schoolteacher); University of Wisconsin, B.A., B.L., 1882, B.S., 1884, M.S., 1887; Johns Hopkins University, Ph.D., 1893.

Instructor and associate professor at Ohio State University (1893–95); reader at Bryn Mawr College (1895–1903), associate professor (1903–06), professor (1906–28), professor emeritus (1928–45); geologist, U.S. Geological Survey, publishing major folios (1896–1938); second woman appointed a fellow (1894) and first woman elected an officer (1924) of the Geological Society of America; associate editor for American Geologist (1896–1905); sabbatical to Germany (1906); honored at special luncheon in her honor by Geological Society of America (1937).

Selected writings:

Bascom, "The Structures, Origin, and Nomenclature of the Acid Volcanic Rocks of South Mountain," Journal of Geology 1 (1893): pp. 813–832; "The Ancient Volcanic Rocks of South Mountain, Pennsylvania," U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin no. 136 (1896); "The Relation of the Streams in the Neighborhood of Philadelphia to the Bryn Mawr Gravel," American Geologist 19 (1897): pp. 50–57; "Aporhyolite of South Mountain, Pennsylvania," Bulletin of the Geological Society of America 8 (1897): pp. 393–396; "Piedmont District of Pennsylvania," Bulletin of the Geological Society of America 16 (1905): pp. 289–328; with Victor Goldschmidt, "Anhydrite Twin from Aussee," American Journal of Science 24 (1907): pp. 487–490; with W.B. Clark, N.H. Darton, H.B. Kümmel, R.D. Salisbury, B.L. Miller, and G.N. Knapp, "Description of the Philadelphia District," U.S. Geological Survey Atlas, Folio 162, 1909; with N.H. Darton, H.B. Kümmel, W.B. Clark, B.L. Miller, and R.D. Salisbury, "Description of the Trenton Quadrangle," U.S. Geological Survey Atlas, Folio 167, 1909; "The Petrographic Province of Neponset Valley, Massachusetts," Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 2 (1912): pp. 15, 129–161; with B.L. Miller, "Description of the Elkton and Wilmington Quadrangles," U.S. Geological Survey Atlas, Folio 211, 1920; "The Use of the Two-Circle Contact Goniometer in Teaching Crystallography," American Mineralogist 5 (1920): pp. 45–50; "The University in 1874–1887," Wisconsin Magazine of History 8 (March 1925): pp. 300–301, 308; "Fifty Years of Progress in Petrography and Petrology: 1876–1926," The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Geology no. 8 (1927): pp. 33–82; with G.W. Stose, "Description of the Fairfield and Gettysburg Quadrangles," U.S. Geological Survey Atlas, Folio 225, 1929; with E.T. Wherry, G.W. Stose, and A.I. Jonas, "Geology and Mineral Resources of the Quakertown-Doylestown District," U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin, no. 828, 1931; with G.W. Stose, "Description of the Coatesville and West Chester Quadrangles," U.S. Geological Survey Atlas, Folio 223, 1932; with G.W. Stose, "Geology and Mineral Resources of the Honeybrook and Phoenixville Quadrangles, Pennsylvania," U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin, no. 891, 1938.

Florence Bascom was born on July 14, 1862—at a time when the Civil War was splitting the country—at Williamstown, Massachusetts, the youngest of three surviving children. Descended from hardy 17th-century New England Calvinists (Miles Standish was a maternal ancestor), she grew up in an intellectual home. Her father John was a professor of oratory and rhetoric at Williams College as well as a powerful pulpit speaker, and her mother Emma Curtiss (John's second wife) had been a teacher. Emma was a graduate of Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps' Patapsco Institute; in accordance with Phelps' view that science could strengthen domestic life, she had a strong science background, especially in botany. A charter member and officer of the Association for the Advancement of Women, Emma believed that the mother needed outside interests and activities to "broaden her knowledge, deepen her sympathies and enlarge her mental vision." Raised by his mother and older sisters, Florence's father once said, "I owe much to women." During his student days at Williams, he had taken numerous science courses. A seminary graduate, he liberally attempted to reconcile science and Christianity in his classroom.

Florence grew up in a college town that endorsed puritanical principles. Interested in temperance and suffrage (Susan B. Anthony 's birthplace was nearby), Florence's parents influenced her. A highly intelligent, serious child, she studiously finished her schoolwork and played with her companionable dog. At home, she participated in discussions about politics and contemporary issues. During the Jacksonian era when she matured, science was popular. John Bascom, who struggled with nervous depression, relied on his children to relieve his melancholy. He took them on trips to nearby mountains to exercise, promoting natural science to help them develop "definiteness of aim." They explored the land around their large, two-story gabled home on the banks of the Hoosac (now Hoosic) River and took temperature readings of the thermal spring which traversed the property. The Bascom house contained observatory and laboratory equipment which both parents used to encourage scientific interests.

When Florence was 12, her father accepted the position as president of the University of Wisconsin in Madison so that he could teach philosophy

and ethics. Though Florence did not want to move, she was convinced by a friend that Madison had an impressive marble capitol building like the one in Washington, D.C. Eager to see the lavish capital, Florence was disappointed when her family arrived in late summer to discover that 19th-century Madison was small and drab. Her father was also disillusioned; the students were mediocre and poorly prepared compared to the students at Williams, and the president's house was the only building on University Hill.

Florence attended Madison High School, where she graduated in 1877 with high grades at age 16. At graduation, dressed in a white muslin and silk dress decorated with rosebuds and lace, she read an essay on water. The Tri-Weekly Journal commented, "Miss Florence lisped quite prettily, thus adding a charm to the interest of her delivery, which was otherwise expressive and by no means monotonous."

Bascom shared an especially close relationship with her father, with whom she often rode or drove to the family house at Lake Mendota. She was aware of his efforts to liberalize Wisconsin's curriculum, secure more research opportunities for faculty, and guarantee equal education for women. During the autumn of 1877, she enrolled as a freshman at the university. With her sister Jean, she joined the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and attended literary meetings at Ladies Hall.

Coeducation was then in its early stages at Wisconsin; women still had separate lecture buildings and could only use the library on specific days. To balance this segregation, John Bascom expanded traditional curricula. Florence pursued the new modern-classical curriculum with classes in German, French, and English literature. She considered academics at Wisconsin to be deficient, however, so her father continued to add to her schooling at home.

Although she had access to many influential professors, she regretted that they did not specialize in research and that there were no graduate students in her classes to inspire academic excellence. She also criticized professors who recited directly from textbooks, adding nothing in the way of fresh insights: "There was only too little general or collateral reading and no manifestation, I should say, of the spirit of research." Studiously acquiring a broad education, Bascom received her A.B. and B.L. degrees at the 1882 commencement.

That autumn, she traveled by train to Hampton, Virginia, to teach in a school for both African and Native Americans that one of her father's friends had founded. After one year, besieged by letters from her mother telling her how to prevent tuberculosis, of which one of her sisters died, Bascom returned to Madison for graduate studies in science. Intrigued, she focused on geology, a choice motivated by several factors. Usually, women were the last to be seated in lectures, but geology professors arranged their students alphabetically, not by gender, which had sparked her interest in science during her junior year. Sitting up front, she became absorbed in the lectures. She was also influenced by a visit with her father to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. On a drive with her father and family friend Dr. Edward Orton, geologist at Ohio State University and member of the Ohio State Geological Survey, she became aware that landscapes had unseen geological formations. Bascom desired to learn more about the manner in which landscapes were formed.

The selection of work in which one delights, and a diligent adherence to it, are [the] main ingredients of success.

—Florence Bascom

She studied geology with some of the best scholars in the country. Thomas Chamberlin directed the state geological survey, while Professor Roland D. Irving, an authority on Lake Superior, inspired Bascom to remark, "He was a rare teacher and a great geologist." Charles R. Van Hise, a leading structural geologist, was only five years older than his pupil. Van Hise had been a former student of John Bascom and quickly became Florence's scholarly hero. When she received a B.S. in 1884, her professors encouraged her to continue her studies.

While Bascom was a student, Chamberlin completed and published the state geological survey and became director of the division of glacial geology in the U.S. Geological Survey. Aware of such career opportunities, Bascom chose to specialize in petrography (dealing with the description and classification of rocks) and structural geology. She worked closely with Van Hise on her master's thesis while he finished his doctorate. While Irving supervised both of their work, Van Hise taught Bascom to subordinate detail in order to understand regional patterns and acquire results. Her thesis, "The Sheet Gabbros of Lake Superior," contributed to the men's more comprehensive studies. She completed her M.S. in geology in 1887.

In that year, her father resigned as university president. His tenure, often referred to as the university's golden age because of his reforms, ended because he disagreed with the university's regents who resisted his changes. Worried about perceptions of his integrity, he publicly stated that the regents were not interested in education. Returning to Williamstown with her family, Bascom taught Greek and physical geography at a local high school but wanted more challenging work. When her less-ambitious brother returned penniless from a western excursion, she decided to become financially independent.

From 1889 to 1891, Bascom taught geology and chemistry at Rockford College in Illinois, decisively planning to make geology her life work. Her father wrote her: "You are not likely to find any path but that of work. I hope you will be able to make work an immediate joy." She realized that to become a professional geologist she needed to acquire advanced education and technical knowledge. Her Wisconsin professors urged her to apply to the Johns Hopkins University, then the premiere graduate school in America. Bascom's father, concerned about her choice of field and university, told her, "I do not quite understand why you elect a study you can hardly hope to make a specialty in instruction," but promised to support her.

She submitted her application in September 1890. Johns Hopkins did not accept women but made an exception for Bascom to attend lectures because she would be unable to receive equal instruction in petrography anywhere else. She could attend the university, paying only laboratory fees not tuition, because she was not considered a formal candidate for graduation. This discriminatory policy modeled conservative German colleges where faculty refused to consider women as equal scholars.

Johns Hopkins focused on research as the main goal of higher education. Bascom had access to scholars such as crystallographer George Huntington Williams, who had learned micro-scopical petrography in Heinrick Rosenbusch's Heidelberg laboratory. He introduced petrography methods in which thin rock sections were cut and examined under the polarized light of a microscope. Bascom learned this technique and registered for seminars in inorganic geology and paleontology. Because she was a woman, she had to sit behind a screen in the corner of lecture rooms to shield her from male students.

Bascom's family helped her survive the hostile environment at Johns Hopkins. Her father advised her to be patient and tolerant and "to win what you fairly can, no more." When she complained of male students and faculty staring at her, John told his geologically inclined daughter, "you better put a stone or two in your pockets to throw at those 'heads that are thrust out of windows.'" Bascom admitted that her academic work was not as rigorous as she had imagined it might be. Her mother, worried that the strain might cause her to be exhausted and ill, urged her to "indulge yourself a little and not be such a hard taskmaster over your body."

Florence studied with Williams, analyzing the terrain of the Maryland and Pennsylvania Piedmont. Wearing long skirts and gaiters and carrying a knapsack packed with a geologic hammer, compass, magnifying glass, and notebook, she joined Williams, faculty, and students on fieldwork near Baltimore in the summer of 1892. Enduring the hard work, she hammered rocks while shouldering the stares and curses of curious onlookers. Sometimes, when she went into the field alone, farmers threateningly called her a trespasser and enraged bulls chased her.

Returning to the laboratory and studying collected samples under the microscope, she prepared her dissertation, "A Contribution to the Geology of South Mountain, Pennsylvania." Bascom revealed that the Precambrian rocks of South Mountain were actually formed from ancient lava flows not sediments, a concept which according to the Baltimore American "changed the opinion of two generations of geologists." She introduced the term aporhyolite into geological jargon to explain how volcanics undergo extreme metamorphosis.

Her fieldwork was so useful that her professors incorporated her reports in the Maryland Geological Survey and recommended that she become a doctoral candidate because she had "ability, energy and enthusiasm that could be expected of any man." In the fall, she formally applied for a Ph.D. which was approved secretly because of the excellence of her scholarship. The trustees emphasized that her Ph.D. was special, not a precedent. University President Daniel Coit Gilman called her to his office in January 1893 to tell her the news. Bascom's Ph.D. was not only the first awarded a woman at Johns Hopkins, but also the first geology Ph.D. earned by a woman in America. Her new alma mater did not officially admit women until 1907 nor award another female doctorate until 1911.

Nationally, newspapers reported her Ph.D. The Milwaukee Journal described her as being of medium height, "a pronounced blonde" who was "completely engrossed in her studies." ABaltimore Sunday News column said, "She is quiet and self-possessed, a woman who is reserved, of few words and apparently possessed of great determination." When commencement occurred on June 13, 1893, Bascom, a woman who was said to shun notoriety, was traveling by train west to Ohio State University ready to begin to work with Edward Orton. Although she had many discouraging experiences at Johns Hopkins, she gained a great love of research.

Though Bascom decided not to marry, she said she preferred the conversation of men and remarked, "women indulge in small talk." Her father fulfilled her need for affection: "He was all that I needed, association with him gratified all I wanted or needed so far as men were concerned." John Bascom encouraged his daughter to remain unattached, reassuring her that "one thing is as fixed as the stars and far more comfortable than the stars, and that is your love."

In 1895, Bryn Mawr College, which actively recruited intellectual professors to influence the all-female student body, sought Bascom because of her prestige as a research scientist. Founded by the men of Johns Hopkins, the school was overseen by trustees looking for professors who could inspire students with independent and original research. Orton tried to persuade her to teach at Wellesley, while her father suggested Vassar or Mount Holyoke. But Bascom considered Bryn Mawr's offer attractive, given the college's focus on research, though it paid a smaller salary.

Soon after she began teaching, however, Bascom discovered that college administrators were not interested in establishing a geology department. James Rhoads, the president who had hired her and who believed in a strong science curricula, had died and been replaced by Martha Carey Thomas who did not want to spend money on a field she did not think would appeal to many female students. When Bascom first arrived, other departments occupied the main floors of the science building, but she was resourceful in utilizing the laboratory space and supplies she was issued. She began teaching a single geology class. Planning a research-oriented department, she established a geological library with mineral specimens and laboratory equipment, including a petrographic microscope.

Held on the fourth floor of Dalton Hall, Bascom's lectures attracted students. So many students took geology that she proposed an undergraduate major, and by 1903 she hired a second geology faculty member. Having advanced from a reader in geology to full professor by 1906 despite obvious obstacles, she created a graduate program that gained prominence internationally. Hers was the first geology department at a women's college.

Attempting to provide her students the best education possible, she lectured and assigned laboratory and surveying fieldwork. Students learned about historical geology and were taught how to interpret geological maps, take observations, solve problems, and report on geological papers. They accompanied Bascom on trips to Precambrian crystalline formations and Pleistocene and Cretaceous fossils and rocks near the campus, collecting and recording specimens in journals. Students listened to eminent geologists who were invited by Bascom to lecture.

In 1906, she took a year sabbatical to Heidelberg, Germany, where she learned techniques of crystal measurement and how to observe optical characteristics of minerals from Victor Goldschmidt and Rosenbusch. On her return, she introduced optical crystallography methods to American scientists and showed them how to use a two-circle contact goniometer that she had developed to teach crystallography. Bascom also studied paleontology and stratigraphy to complement her work in petrography and structural geology.

An opinionated woman who carefully made observations, upheld high scientific standards, and was committed to her teaching and research, Bascom constantly battled the outspoken and domineering Martha Thomas. Thomas claimed that although Bryn Mawr wanted broader intellectual opportunities for women, she considered geology an inappropriate course. When Thomas demoted the course to a science elective, Bascom resigned, and her students protested. The college's trustees reinstated the major to insure that she stayed. Despite lack of adequate administrative support, space, money, and staff, Bascom continued to build a research reputation.

Through the 1930s, Bascom trained the most important female geologists in the world. Unassuming, she was addressed as Miss Bascom, never Dr. Bascom, by her students and wore a white shirtwaist, skirt, and black robe as required to teach her classes. She insisted on wearing a leather jacket, split skirt, and sturdy shoes on field trips or when riding her bicycle or horse, and Thomas criticized her for this, demanding that she conform to more ladylike attire. Irritated at protocol—such as Thomas requiring her to stay on campus for commencement when she wanted to utilize the time in the field—Bascom refused to comply. She also demanded raises and promotions despite Thomas' blustering and satisfactorily served on a committee to reduce Thomas' presidential powers.

Bascom's scientific impact can be assessed by her students' contributions. She stimulated students such as Maria Luisa Crawford who noted, "she was an uncompromising and challenging teacher." Dorothy Wyckoff recalled, "She expected of her students clear and honest thinking, not by precept so much as by example." Bascom recognized talented students committed to geology and supported their endeavors, nurturing their talents and training them to research in a mentor-apprentice friendship; she gave her favorite graduate students polished gems mounted in necklaces. Throughout her life, her advice was sought to shape geological careers for women. She hoped her students would become her colleagues and regretted when talented female geologists were "lost to the sciences by marriage." Several students she trained in geological methods became leaders in the profession. One student, Ida Helen Ogilvie (1874–1963), earned a Ph.D. from Columbia and was the first woman to teach graduate courses in geology at a major coeducational university.

Extending her geological work outside the classroom, Bascom collaborated with the federal government when she accepted an 1896 appointment to the U.S. Geological Survey, the first woman credentialed for that work. Employment with the government gave her access to laboratory equipment, books, civil-service status, and colleagues unavailable at Bryn Mawr. During her summer vacations, she went into the field, walking, riding her horse, or driving a buggy in the mountains, to gather rocks, take notes, and map crystalline formations of the Mid-Atlantic Piedmont region. A familiar sight in the countryside, she worked long, uncomfortable hours from dawn to dark in the field then drafted maps at night. She surveyed her assigned territory from New Jersey to Virginia, expecting her students to toil diligently in the field beside her. Bascom then analyzed the thin mineral slivers on microscope slides in winter and recorded her results and conclusions. Of her rigorous routine, Bascom wrote, "This is the life, to plunge into the wholesome isolation of the field, to return to the stimulating association of Bryn Mawr, to observe and in part to clear up geologic phenomena, to return to the exposition and interpretation of geologic phenomena."

Her reports are considered her most important geological contribution, and her research results were published as seven major United States Geological Survey Folios from 1909 to 1938 that are the basis for geological work in that region. Because of her work, geological maps for every square mile of public domain were prepared. These survey maps indicate areas feasible for economic development and provide scientific insight to the North American continent's physical history.

Bascom eagerly corresponded with her father about her fieldwork, claiming, "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 in the task." She told him that she found a "joy that is beyond expression in 'sounding the abyss of science' and the secrets of the infinite mind." When her father died in 1911, she lost her intellectual confidante and best friend. While Bascom mourned, her lectures were reserved. She arranged for her father's autobiography to be published posthumously.

Traveling around the world for professional meetings, she attended an International Geological Congress in Moscow, where she rode in the tsar's carriage. She published approximately 40 articles on petrology, geomorphology, and the history of geology. Because Bascom insisted on using her first initial instead of her name, there were occasionally problems such as the hotel which, assuming she was a man, assigned her male roommates at a convention. She enjoyed conversing with peers at professional meetings and being active in the male-dominated Geological Society of America. In 1894, she was the second woman selected as a fellow of the Society (not the first woman fellow as some biographical sketches mistakenly indicate) and the first woman elected an officer in 1924. She held offices in the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences and American Association of University Professors and participated in numerous geological groups and honoraries. Her name was starred in the first edition of American Men of Science to indicate that she was a prominent geologist. From 1896 to 1905, she acted as associate editor for American Geologist.

Disciplined in all aspects of her life, Bascom exercised her blue roan mare, Fantasy, and her colt, Starlight, daily. She protected wildlife, rescuing trapped animals and rebuking policemen who left their horses exposed to cold weather. If she found an injured animal, it took priority over fieldwork. Marion Edwards Park, Bryn Mawr president after Thomas, commented that Bascom was the most generous person she knew.

Bascom worked so hard that her health gradually failed, and she retired to her house near Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1928. Freed from collegiate protocol, she had her hair bobbed at a local barber shop. She filled her home with antiques and books, picked berries, and roamed the countryside she had explored with her father as a child. Bascom read voraciously and drove around town, her dogs always in the backseat. Becoming more eccentric as she aged, she never cooked, but, remembering her mother's dietary influence, ate heartily at nearby farms. When she hosted friends, she heated up canned soup and served fruit.

In later life, she continued her survey work, writing folios and quibbling with other geologists about the interpretation of data, but she became easily fatigued and suffered memory loss. When she was defrauded of $20,000 of stocks, she decided not to return to Washington, D.C., retiring from the survey in 1938. Impoverished, she commented, "I now live modestly though comfortably. … It is good discipline to be poor." Bryn Mawr arranged for her to have a special room for research, but she decided after two years that she was aging too much to work. She requested that her graduate students continue her work and methodology, but often these disciples did not follow exactly in her footsteps. She was angered when two of her students, Anna Jonas and Eleanora Bliss , controversially challenged and modified her interpretations about the age of Wissakickon schist.

Unable to live at Topping alone, Bascom moved in with her sister Jean at their family home on the Williams campus. She wrote a former student that her mind and money were both disappearing quickly. A family friend, Grace Sutherland , cared for the women and drove Florence to Topping because she talked so much about it, but the now senile Bascom did not recognize her home, asking only, "Should I know this place?"

Florence Bascom suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died on June 18, 1945, at Northampton, Massachusetts. She was buried in the Bascom plot at Williams College Cemetery. Eight years earlier, at a special luncheon in her honor at the 50th anniversary meeting of the Geological Society of America, Bascom stressed that she disapproved of segregating scientists by gender. Gazing around the table, she realized that she had trained the majority of the eminent women present.


Aldrich, Michele L. "Women in Geology," in Gabriele Kass-Simon and Patricia Farnes, eds. Women of Science: Righting the Record. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, pp. 42–71.

American Mineralogist, March-April 1946, memorial issue with bibliography.

Arnold, Lois Barber. Four Lives in Science: Women's Education in the Nineteenth Century. NY: Schocken Books, 1984.

Smith, Isabel Fothergill. The Stone Lady: A Memoir of Florence Bascom. Bryn Mawr: Bryn Mawr College, 1981.

suggested reading:

Bascom, John. Things Learned by Living. NY: Putnam, 1913.

Fairchild, Herman LeRoy. The Geological Society of America, 1888–1930. NY: The Geological Society of America, 1932.

Meigs, Cornelia. What Makes a College? A History of Bryn Mawr. NY: Macmillan, 1956.

Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.


Biographical file, transcripts, alumni records, and Bascom's father's papers are located at the University of Wisconsin Archives, Madison, Wisconsin.

Correspondence, history of geology department, and departmental reports in Florence Bascom Papers and Faculty Minutes, both in the Bryn Mawr College Archives, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. The college's geology department also has some of Bascom's papers, including her fieldwork notebooks.

Correspondence, newspaper clippings, her parents' items, her government survey certificate, and photographs are in the Florence Bascom Papers at the Smith College Library, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Information about Bascom's admission to Johns Hopkins University and her Ph.D. in Special Collections, Eisenhower Library, the John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland.

Elizabeth D. Schafer , Ph.D., freelance writer in the history of technology and science, Loachapoka, Alabama