Chase, Agnes Meara (1869–1963)

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Chase, Agnes Meara (1869–1963)

American botanist. Name variations: Mary Agnes Meara Chase. Born Mary Agnes Meara in Iroquois County, Illinois, on April 20, 1869; died in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1963; fifth of six children of Martin J. (a railroad engineer) and Mary (Brannick) Meara; attended public grammar school in Chicago; married William Ingraham Chase, in 1888 (died 1889).

Lacking formal education, Agnes Meara turned a passionate hobby into a distinguished career as a botanist and international authority on grasses. She was known as a woman of unflagging energy and interests, who also devoted herself to a number of reform movements.

Chase was a teenager when she landed a position as a newspaper proofreader to help her widowed mother keep the family of six together. She fell in love and married her editor, William Chase. When he died less than a year later, 19-year-old Agnes was on her own. She worked a variety of jobs, while expanding her growing interest in botany. On a plant collecting trip in 1898, she met bryologist Ellsworth Hill, who instructed her in plant lore, taught her how to use a microscope, and enlisted her as an illustrator. While working for Hill, Chase also illustrated two publications for the Field Museum of Natural History: Plantae Utowanae (1900) and Plantae Yucatamae (1904). With Hill's encouragement, she applied for a position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), working as a meat inspector at the Chicago Stockyards before obtaining a position as a botanical artist with the Bureau of Plant Industry (1903) in Washington, D.C.

At the Bureau, she met Albert Spear Hitchcock, a specialist in the study of grasses, and they began a long collaboration. With Hitchcock as a mentor, Chase moved up quickly through the ranks and, at his death in 1936, succeeded him as principal scientist in charge of systematic agrostology. Over the years, her various collecting trips yielded over 4,500 specimens, most of which she donated to the Smithsonian and the National Herbarium. In addition, she identified new species and extended the ranges of previously described ones. Her work in agrostology had practical applications in agriculture, where her information was applied to crop development. Fully dedicated to her work, Chase eschewed lunch hours and worked on Saturdays. Although she never remarried, she built an extended family of friends and co-workers with whom she shared living quarters in the Washington area. One such friend, Mary Wright Gill , illustrated a children's book that Chase wrote about an orphaned squirrel she had adopted named Toodles.

Agnes Chase was as devoted to political causes as to her work and was associated with a number of reform movements during her lifetime. She was a suffragist (jailed in 1918 and again in 1919 while protesting), a prohibitionist, and a socialist. She supported the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the NAACP, the National Woman's Party, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and gave a portion of her salary to groups such as the Quakers and the National Wildlife Federation.

Following her mandatory retirement at age 70, she remained active, working as a volunteer at the Smithsonian Institution revising Hitchcock's Manual of the Grasses of the United States, as well as compiling a massive index to grass species. She continued to take field trips, including one to Venezuela when she was 71 to assist in developing a range-management program. At age 91, Chase wrote in a letter to her goddaughter, "If I had any sense I'd quit the herbarium and grasses, but it would be easier to stop breathing." She died at a nursing home in Bethesda, Maryland, at age 94.


Chase's papers located at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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