Myra Keen

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Myra Keen
Born Angeline Myra Keen
(1905-05-23)May 23, 1905[1]
Colorado Springs, Colorado[1]
Died January 4, 1986(1986-01-04) (aged 80)
Sonoma, California
Nationality American
Alma mater

Myra Keen (1905–1986) was an American malacologist and invertebrate paleontologist. She was an expert on the evolution of marine mollusks. With a PhD in psychology, Keen went from being a volunteer, identifying shells at Stanford, and having no formal training in biology or geology, to being one of the world's foremost malacologists.[1][2] She was called the "First Lady of Malacology".[1]

Early life[edit]

Angelina Myra Keen was born in 1905 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She was an only child, and when she was two, her family moved to just outside of the town of Lytle, Colorado (now within Fort Carson). They built their own house and had 1200 acres, where Keen herded cattle and rode horses. She was raised as a Quaker. Her father was a cattle rancher and postmaster.[1] As a teenager she was a hobbyist photographer and naturalist.[2] Keen's family moved back to Colorado Springs so she could attend a city high school, which she graduated from in 1923.[1] Keen earned her Bachelor of Arts at Colorado College in 1930.[2] She did not like dissecting animals, and despite a love for nature, she decided to study psychology.[1] Keen went on to get her Master of Arts in psychology at Stanford and her PhD, also in psychology, from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1934.[2] Her mother moved with her to California, while Keen's father stayed in Colorado and ran a chicken farm.[1]

While studying at Berkeley, Keen became interested in seashells, which she collected during trips to Monterey. She would bring the shells back and sell them at a shop in Berkeley. Eventually she moved to Monterey to live because it was cheaper than the East Bay area.[1] Struggling to find a job, Keen started volunteering at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station, identifying seashells for the geology department and working under Ida Shepard Oldroyd.[1][2] The volunteer position was her first time studying mollusks, aside from previous classes in geology, biology and statistics.[2]


Keen became curator of paleontology at Stanford in 1936, replacing former curator and mentor Ida Oldroyd.[1] She became Assistant Professor of Paleontology in 1954, followed by Curator of Malacology in 1957. In 1964 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She was one of three female science professors at Stanford, making tenure in 1965. Keen retired in 1970 as Professor of Paleontology Emeritus and Curator of Malacology Emeritus. She was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a fellow at the Geological Society of America and the Paleontological Society. In 1979 she was the first woman to be given the Fellow Medal from the California Academy of Sciences. She was served as chair of the Committee on Nomenclature of the Society of Systematic Zoology. She was also president of the Western Society for Malacology and the American Malacological Union.[2]

By the time of Keen's retirement, the paleontology collection, which is now on permanent loan to the California Academy of Sciences, totaled approximately one million specimens. The collection features one of the most important collections of mollusk shells in the United States. Keen helped build the collection, contributing specimens from the Pacific coast. While the majority of the collection is located at the California Academy of Sciences, a small collection of specimens are on display at Stanford at the Myra Keen Exhibit of Modern and Fossil Shells.[1]

Research work[edit]

Her research work focused around mollusk systematics, as well as marine molluscan Cenozoic paleontology, neontology and zoogeography of the western North America and marine mollusk fauna from the Panamic Province. She helped catalog, organize and collect for the Cenozoic mollusk collection at Stanford.[2] Keen provided the first research documentation regarding how the distribution of mollusks on the Pacific coast is affected by temperature. In 1960, in the eastern Pacific Ocean, she discovered the first living examples of bivalved gastropods, which were in the species and subspecies Berthelinia chloris belvederica.[1] Prior to this discovery, bivalved gastropods had been identified as bivalves, based on the shell characteristics.

In 1975, Keen was invited to meet with Emperor Hirohito of Japan. He was a collector of shells, and had sent Keen specimens. The two also exchanged papers. When he visited in 1975 the two met in San Francisco, where they discussed their shared interest of shells and invertebrates.[1] Keen's graduate students included the Japanese Paleontologist and Malacologist Katsura Ōyama from 1955 to 1957.[citation needed]

Her research led her to writing 14 books and 75[1] papers about the subject of mollusks,[2] including Sea Shells of Tropical West America, which features over 1700 figures and 624 pages of writing. Still in print, the book is considered a major work of seashell scholarship. Keen never utilized federal support or funds.[1]

Later life and legacy[edit]

Despite being raised Quaker, Keen was not a member of the Quakers until 1964. She was very active in the Palo Alto Society of Friends. A. Myra Keen died of cancer on January 4, 1986.[1] Keen's papers are in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution Archives[3] and Stanford University.[4]

Women's roles at Stanford[edit]

Keen is acknowledged by Stanford as being key in paving the way for women's advancements at the university. As a student and professor, she experienced sexism. She was active in the campus group, The Women of the Faculty, which was the answer to Stanford's Men's Faculty Club. The group met monthly, sharing achievements and experiences. Keen served as the group's historian, and was the group's third chairman from 1958 to 1960.[1]


  • Marine Molluscan Genera of Western North America; An Illustrated Key. Stanford: Stanford University Press (1974). ISBN 0-8047-0839-8
  • Sea Shells of Tropical West America: Marine Mollusks from Baja California to Peru. Stanford: Stanford University Press (1971). ISBN 0-8047-0736-7


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r W. R. Evitt. "Myra Keen" (PDF). Memorial Resolution. Stanford University. Retrieved 5 March 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i "A. Myra Keen Interview". Record Unit 9527. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved 5 March 2012. 
  3. ^ "A. Myra Keen Papers". Record Unit 7333. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved 6 March 2012. 
  4. ^ "Myra A. Keen Papers (SC0305)". Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives. Stanford University Libraries. Retrieved 6 March 2012. 

External links[edit]

  • Myra Keen from the Monterey Bay Paleontological Society