Mary Agnes Chase

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Mary Agnes Chase
Mary Agnes Chase (1869-1963), sitting at desk with specimens.jpg
Mary Agnes Chase seated at a desk with herbarium sheets, c.1960 [1]
Born(1869-04-29)April 29, 1869
Iroquois County, Illinois
DiedSeptember 24, 1963(1963-09-24) (aged 94)
Other namesAgnes Chase
Known forFirst Book of Grasses
Spouse(s)William Ingraham Chase
Scientific career
Fieldsbotany, botanical illustration
InstitutionsU.S. Department of Agriculture, Smithsonian Institution
Author abbrev. (botany)Chase

Mary Agnes Meara Chase (April 29, 1869 – September 24, 1963) was an American botanist who worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Smithsonian Institution. She is "considered one of the world's outstanding agrostologists"[2][3] and is known for her work on the study of grasses and for her work as a suffragist.

Life and career[edit]

Mary Agnes Chase collecting plants in Brazil, 1929[4]

Chase was born in Iroquois County, Illinois and held no formal education beyond grammar school. Chase made significant contributions to the field of botany, authored over 70 scientific publications, and was conferred with an honorary doctorate in science from the University of Illinois.[2] She specialized in the study of grasses and conducted extensive field work in North and South America. Her field books from 1897 to 1959 are archived in the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1893, Mary had visited the Colombian Exposition in Chicago with her nephew, who was a botanist, and this had inspired her to study plants in Northern Illinois.[5] In 1901, Chase became a botanical assistant at the Field Museum of Natural History under Charles Frederick Millspaugh, where her work was featured in two museum publications: Plantae Utowanae (1900) and Plantae Yucatanae (1904).[6] Two years later, Chase joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a botanical illustrator and eventually became a scientific assistant in systematic agrostology (1907), assistant botanist (1923), and associate botanist (1925), all under Albert Spear Hitchcock. Chase worked with Hitchcock for almost twenty years, collaborating closely and also publishing (The North American Species of Panicum [1910]).[2]

Following Hitchcock's death in 1936, Chase succeeded him to become senior botanist in charge of systematic agrostology and custodian of the Section of Grasses, Division of Plants at the Smithsonian's United States National Museum (USNM). Chase retired from the USDA in 1939 but continued her work as custodian of the USNM grass herbarium until her death in 1963.

Women's Suffrage Movement[edit]

Two of Agnes Chase's favorite photo subjects, Brazil, 1924 or 25.

While “Chase's power within her institution was at times undermined by her own political activities,” she believed it was essential to address gender discrimination if it was negatively impacting a woman's ability to achieve success both socially and professionally.[8] Chase was forced to disregard the potential damage that her support for women's rights could have on her career as a respected agrostologist in order to succeed as a legitimate advocate for the cause.

Chase was one of many up-and-coming scientists who wanted to democratize the field by making scientific knowledge accessible and its practice comprehensible to a broader audience.[8] Chase acted as a mentor for advanced but underprivileged students in the sciences, as well as women wanting to become botanists.[8] As a female government employee, Chase understood how difficult it could be to legitimize her passion for the sciences when she couldn't convince her superiors to provide her with the money or the resources to travel and complete research, at one point forced to fund her own trip to collect samples while struggling to budget an annual salary of $720.[8] Chase experienced discrimination based on her gender in the scientific field, for example, being excluded from expeditions to Panama in 1911 and 1912 because the expedition's benefactors feared the presence of women researchers would distract men.[8] To help facilitate women in their scientific research, Chase traveled to South America, Canada and the Philippines to be “a liberal and supportive mentor, one who [encouraged] independence and [needed] little control over her students” and also opened up her home to young women in need of a place to stay while completing their studies.[8] In the early 1900s, the majority of women interested in the sciences could only pursue careers as museum curators if they wanted any access to research opportunities or connections to other scientists. This reality is what drove Chase to redefine the “vision of what constitutes a career in science” in her positions of mentorship, and her support for women's rights continued to gain traction, both in the sphere of science and in the political world surrounding it.[8]

The National American Women's Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was founded by Lucy Stone in 1890, in which she brought together the ideologies and agendas of two competing suffragist groups: The National Woman Suffrage Association and American Woman Suffrage Association.[9] Lucy Burns and Alice Paul took on prominent positions within NAWSA, and while they believed in the organization's mission to achieve suffrage, they didn't necessarily agree with the notion that such change could occur with the support of the states alone. In 1916, the two women split from NAWSA to form an organization of their own entitled the National Women's Party (NWP), a radical act that gave them the freedom to fight for the making of a federal amendment in favor of women's suffrage.[9]

As an active suffragist, Mary Agnes Chase took part in a series of demonstrations lead by the “Silent Sentinels,” members of the NWP who wanted President Wilson to listen to what women had to say about the vote.[9] These “Silent Sentinels” attempted to infiltrate the White House in every way possible; 300 delegates were sent to meet with the President to discuss the need for a Federal suffrage amendment;[10] Women unfurled a banner saying “Votes for Women” down into the White House gallery while in the attendance of a House of Representatives meeting;[10] Pickets took place at every entrance of the White House gates, with signs and banners reading “What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?”[10] and “Mr. President, How Long Will Women Have to Wait for Liberty?”.[9] Each day was themed so that women from all walks of life could be represented in the suffragist demonstration; There were State Days for women to represent their states, and Professional Days for women to represent their fields of study, such as law, science, and journalism.[10] The “Silent Sentinels” meant to hold out indefinitely until a compromise could be reached, and while NAWSA believed their actions to be too militaristic, many empathizers of the movement donated money towards the continuation of the picketing and demonstrations, raising over $3000 in total.[10] Chase herself publicly vowed to burn any publication of President Wilson's that used words such as “liberty” and “freedom” until women were given suffrage.[6] In response to these demonstrations, many women in the NWP were arrested and sent to workhouses, with Paul and Chase included.[10] When it was made public that these women had undergone force-feeding after going on a hunger strike in the workhouses, more support was thrown towards the suffragist cause and this sympathy from the public ultimately released Paul, Chase and others arrested from the workhouses.[10] The persistence shown by the NWP played a major role in influencing the ratification of the Suffrage Amendment in 1919 and 19th Amendment in 1920.[10]

Awards and honors[edit]

Selected works[edit]



  1. ^ "Mary Agnes Chase, Botanist". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 9 July 2013.
  2. ^ a b c "Historical note". SIA RU000229, United States National Museum Division of Grasses, Records, 1884, 1888, 1899-1965. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved 9 July 2013.
  3. ^ Chase, Agnes; A.S. Hitchcock (1910). "The North American species of Panicum". Bulletin of the United States National Museum. doi:10.5962/bhl.title.53687. hdl:2027/hvd.32044106468655.
  4. ^ "Mary Agnes Chase Collecting Plants, Brazil". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 9 July 2013.
  5. ^ "Chase, Mary Agnes (1869-1963)". JSTOR. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  6. ^ a b Carol Hurd Green, ed. (1980). Sicherman, Barbara (ed.). Notable American women: The modern period: A biographical dictionary. Harvard University Press. pp. 146–148.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  7. ^ IPNI.  Chase.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Madsen-Brooks, Leslie (2009). "Challenging Science As Usual: Women's Participation in American Natural History Museum Work, 1870-1950". Journal of Women's History. 21 (2): 11–38, 185. doi:10.1353/jowh.0.0076. ProQuest 203248911.
  9. ^ a b c d "Notable American Women: Completing the Twentieth Century". 2004.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h "President Ignores Suffrage Pickets". New York Times: 13. January 11, 1917. ProQuest 98069924.
  11. ^ a b c d Marilyn Ogilvie; Joy Harvey, eds. (2000). The biographical dictionary of women in science, Vol. 1. Routledge. pp. 246–247.
  12. ^ Novon 3(3): 306 (1993). (IK)


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