Rathbun, Mary Jane (1860–1943)

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Rathbun, Mary Jane (1860–1943)

American marine zoologist. Born in Buffalo, New York, on June 11, 1860; died in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 1943; daughter of Charles Howland Rathbun (a stonemason) and Jane (Furey) Rathbun; graduated from high school in Buffalo, 1878; George Washington University, Ph.D., 1917; never married; no children.

A self-taught zoologist whose formal education ended with her high school graduation, Mary Jane Rathbun was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1860. She was only a year old when her mother died, and she was thereafter cared for by an elderly nurse. Her father Charles Rathbun had inherited the firm of Whitmore, Rathbun & Company, which owned and operated several large, productive stone quarries. An early curiosity about fossils they found in these quarries would help decide the course of both Rathbun's life and that of her older brother Richard. While Richard worked as an assistant to Spencer Baird, head of the U.S. Fish Commission, from 1873 (and from 1880 also as curator of marine invertebrates at the National Museum in Washington, D.C.), Mary Jane Rathbun developed an interest in his work. In 1881, she began to spend her summers with him at the Marine Biological Station at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, assisting him as he catalogued specimens.

Rathbun was fascinated by the mysteries of the sea, and pursued her cataloguing tasks with zeal. Her devotion caught the attention of Baird, who in 1884 hired her to work in the fish commission full-time. She was assigned to the National Museum, where she helped to organize, catalogue, and preserve the museum's collections. Two years later, she was transferred from the commission staff to the museum staff, as a clerk and copyist in the department of marine invertebrates, where she would work for the next 53 years. While her brother Richard was curator and head of the department, his responsibilities with the fish commission left him little time for this job. In 1889, he noted in a report to the museum's board of regents that Rathbun was responsible for "not only the care and preservation of the collections, but also, for the most part, the general supervision of the department." Meanwhile she was educating herself in marine biology and zoology. She began to publish in 1891, and over the course of her career would publish some 158 scientific papers. Named assistant curator in 1907, she resigned from this position in 1914, so that her salary could be used to hire an assistant. This move allowed her to remain in the division as an honorary associate in zoology, with more time for research. Her research focused on classifying and describing contemporary and fossil decapod crustaceans (shrimps, crabs and their near relatives), and both her published articles and the exhaustive notes she kept at the museum were consulted for years. In 1917, with a study on marine crabs, she earned a Ph.D. from George Washington University. (She had been granted an honorary master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh the previous year.)

Described as petite and plain-featured, Rathbun, who never married, was known for her kindness and her extensive grasp of her specialty. During World War I, she worked in the Washington chapter of the Red Cross and sent care packages to the foreign scientists with whom she had corresponded and their families. She died at her Washington home in 1943, after having suffered a fractured hip. Among the bequests in her will was $10,000 to the Smithsonian Institution, to be used to study crustacea in memory of her brother.


Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey. Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Jacqueline Mitchell , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan

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