Althea Rosina Sherman (October 1853 – 1943) was born in Farmersburg Township, Clayton County, Iowa. She was an illustrator, educator, self-taught ornithologist and writer who commissioned the building of the Chimney Swifts' Tower which allowed her to be the first to study and demonstrate the life cycle of chimney swifts. Her career in ornithology also lead to her publishing more than 70 articles in scientific and ornithological journals and lead to her election as a member of the American Ornithologists' Union and inclusion in the Who's Who of Women in Science. Additionally, her work as an illustrator, particularly of the American goldfinch, inspired the Iowa Legislature to adopt the American goldfinch as the State bird.
Early life and education
Sherman's father Mark was a self-taught tanner and shoe maker, but once these techniques were taken up by large factories he turned his attention towards farming, turning their prairie farm into a rich agricultural resource. For this he received considerable personal success as a farmer. However, although his daughter, Althea, later wrote about the animal and plant life that vanished under this agricultural development, the work of her father provided the best education for her and supported her in her later life whilst she carried out research.
Althea and her two older sisters, Amelia and Ada, often travelled 40 miles to an academy at Upper Iowa University to prepare for college. By the mid-19th century, a number of colleges offered courses to both women and men, but the oldest and best of these was Oberlin College in Ohio, in which all three girls enrolled. Amelia and Ada both started on courses to study medicine, but Althea took a different path and chose to dedicate herself to the study of art. Oberlin College maintained two separate degree routes: a classical and literary course. Althea was one of the highly motivated women who chose to follow the classical course, to which she later on attributed her success in her scientific career following her study of Greek and Latin.
Following her graduation from Oberlin College in 1875 with an AB in Art, Althea started teaching before returning to Oberlin College in 1882 to study for a master's degree. Althea then continued her teaching, interspersed with periods of further training as an artist. She then went on to teach at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, leaving in 1885 to study at the Art Students League of New York. In 1887, Althea then moved to Wichita, Kansas to be closer to her older sister Ada. She then worked in Wichita until she returned to her hometown to look after her father who was gravely ill.
In 1892, Althea became a supervisor of drawing at Tacoma Public Schools until she returned to Iowa in 1895 to care again for her father. Her father died in 1896 and Althea remained to care for her mother (Melissa Clark Sherman) until she died in 1902. Althea then remained in Iowa in her family home with her older sister, Dr. Amelia Sherman.
Following a 20-year career in the arts, Althea then took up a career in science, specifically ornithology, due to her skills as an observer and illustrator. Rather than killing any birds, Althea became a strong pioneer in the life study of birds, setting up nest boxes and creating feeding areas for birds to be observed. From her home in Iowa, Sherman subscribed to a total of 26 scientific and ornithological journals and joined 15 societies. Sherman used her skills as an artist to meticulously study and detail her observations and studies, publishing over 70 articles on 38 species over her career that spanned three decades. Articles were published in journals such as:
Chimney Swifts' Tower
In 1915, Althea commissioned the build of a 28-foot tall, 9-foot square wooden tower which was designed to attract nesting chimney swifts for observation. A staircase ran through the center and doors and peepholes allowed Althea to be the first to observe and document the life cycle of the chimney swifts. The journals Althea created covered 18 years of data collection and over 400 pages of intricate detail on the birds. Nowadays, this remastered building - the only one of its kind, is visited by many tourists from nearby and abroad.
Althea Sherman died aged 89 before she could publish a book on her chimney swifts data. However, Fred J. Pierce published a number of copies (1,500) of Sherman's Birds of an Iowa Dooryard following her death.