“Lean In” to Limnology: A History of Aquatic Ecologists

The WDNR Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Research team (Kelly Wagner, Michelle Nault, Ali Mikulyuk, and Martha Barton) with their awards. Photo: Ali Miklulyuk
The WDNR Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Research team (Kelly Wagner, Michelle Nault, Ali Mikulyuk, and Martha Barton) with their awards. Photo: Ali Miklulyuk

Earlier this month, CFL graduate student and Wisconsin DNR research scientist, Alison (Ali) Mikulyuk received the 2013 Wisconsin Lake Stewardship Award along with her colleagues Martha Barton, Michelle Nault, & Kelly Wagner for their work with the WDNR‘s Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Research department. (In Wisconsin Lake circles, they’re affectionately known as the “Plant Divas.”)
Ali at work in a parsnip field. Photo courtesy: Ali Mikulyuk
Ali at work in a parsnip field. Photo courtesy: Ali Mikulyuk

We prefer the term “award winners” since it’s a known fact that we love to brag on our students at the CFL and think they’re pretty much going to save freshwater as we know it. Ali, however asked if we could instead point the spotlight on the long and storied history of other women in limnology.
We were more than happy to oblige – especially since there is such an awesome roster of amazing scientists to choose from. Ali wrote up the following three blurbs. We know it’s slanted toward dead American scientists and not at all comprehensive, but it’s a cool list nonetheless. We are more than happy to hear suggestions of other (preferably even living!) notable women limnologists, ecologists, hydrologists, etc. in the comments section!
Hattie Bell Merrill
Hattie Bell Merrill in the field on a research trip to South America. Photo: UW Digital Collections
Hattie Bell Merrill in the field on a research trip to South America. Photo: UW Digital Collections

Harriet Bell Merrill was an aquatic ecologist working around the turn of the 20th century. She’s best known for her studies on microscopic freshwater animals (zooplankton). In 1892, a rare species of zooplankton was found in a lake near Minocqua, Wisconsin, and Hattie set about describing it in painstaking detail, using both words and pictures. Her work to understand this species and how it compares to other members of the family Macrothricidae eventually took her all the way to South America.
It was extraordinarily rare for women to travel alone in the early 20th century, but 5-foot-tall Hattie completed two excursions there, collecting specimens, conducting research, and writing letters about her travels that were then published in the Milwaukee Sentinel(1). Her great-niece and biographer Merrillyn L. Hartridge collected these and other letters and wrote Merrill’s biography, “The Anandrous Journey” in 1997(2). She notes that upon embarking for South America, Hattie described “A release as liberating as loosing the constraints of corset stays and changing to a shift”.
Harriet Bell received her Master’s degree in 1893, headed the science department at Milwaukee Downer College from 1897-1899 and directed high school biology and physiology departments in Milwaukee. She lectured at Cornell, Chicago, and Wisconsin, and was appointed assistant professor of Zoology at the University of Wisconsin in 1900. She was elected to Wisconsin’s state historical society in 1901 and was the first woman to hold a leadership position on the Wisconsin Academy Council. In 1914, she enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin. In 1915, she died of heart failure.
Minna E. Jewell
We can't find a picture of Minna anywhere on the Internet, so here's a cool freshwater sponge.
We can’t find a picture of Minna anywhere on the Internet, so here’s a cool freshwater sponge.

Minna Jewell contributed some of the first (and by some accounts most insightful) work to be done on prairie streams(4), groundwater(5), and acidic aquatic systems(6,7).
Though her insights into biological and chemical limnology were quite valuable, Jewell was also an excellent natural historian who was fascinated by freshwater sponges. Most of the 1500 species of sponge live in salt water, but around 150 of them are fresh-water adapted. Sponges filter vast quantities of water and may be incredibly important members of the lake invertebrate community. In 1935, Minna Jewell published “An ecological study of the fresh-water sponges of northeastern Wisconsin”(8). For this work, Jewell sampled 1400 specimens, and found 10 different species of sponge. She describes the physical and chemical factors of the water in which each sponge species was present, working to understand the optimal habitat for different species.
To this day, her work has not been improved upon. In fact, the majority of recognized species of Nearctic freshwater sponges are reported from Jewell’s work in Wisconsin(9). Then, as now, experts in freshwater sponge taxonomy were difficult to come by, and soon, Minna was awash in specimens and requests to make or confirm their ID. To rise to the task of identifying the nation’s sponges, she undertook a study of the history of generic names, proposed a new classification, and outlined the typical taxonomic confusions(10).
Minna Jewell received her Ph. D from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 1918. She taught at both Thornton Junior College and Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University). Though she was a charter member of the Ecological Society of America, Jewell did not receive recognition by either the Society or the Limnological community during her lifetime. We know it’s small potatoes here, but with a bibliography like this, we’re more than happy to recognize her on this little blog. Minna had a career any scientist would envy.
Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson conducting marine plant research with Bob Hines. Courtesy: WikiCommons
Rachel Carson conducting marine plant research with Bob Hines. Courtesy: WikiCommons

Before she changed the world and essentially triggered the American environmental movement with her book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson was first an aquatic ecologist.
Carson received her M.A. in 1932 from Johns Hopkins University. In 1936, she was one of the first two women hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). She worked there as a Staff Biologist until 1952, and also served as their Editor-in-Chief. Carson was a scientist, but she was also a writer. Throughout her career, writing was an important part of her work. She published her first story at the age of 11, and when working for the Bureau, she penned radio scripts as well as several works of poetry. Her groundbreaking, eye-opening, world-changing book Silent Spring was published in 1962. In 1964, she received the Conservationist of the Year award from the National Wildlife Federation, became the first woman to receive the Audubon Medal, and received the National Geographic Society Medal. In that same year, Rachel Carson succumbed to cancer. She was 56. Fortunately her words live on.

“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feelthe breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of year, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”

In addition to these three amazing researchers, we’ll post a list compiled by a former student of John Magnuson below. And again, please feel free to offer other names of important limnologists in the comments section. We’re all ears to learn of more women while we wait for our amazing post docs, grad students and undergrads to make their own invaluable contributions to the field of freshwater science!

Key Women in the early history of Limnology and Aquatic Ecology

Harriet “Hattie” Bell Merrill      M.S., 1893, University of Wisconsin
Worked on systematics of Cladocera
Ellen Swallow (Richards)              B.A., 1870, Vassar College
Regarded as founder of the study of ecology, first female student at M.I.T., founder of women’s laboratory at M.I.T.
Ann Haven Morgan                           Ph.D., 1909, Cornell University
Aquatic biology and streams, field guide to ponds and streams, featured in 1933 “American Men of Science,” fellow, visiting scholar at Cornell, Yale, Harvard
Minna E. Jewell                       Ph.D., 1918, Univerisity of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Studied groundwater, pH, prairie streams, freshwater sponges
Emmeline Moore                               Ph.D., 1914, Cornell University
Research interests: fish productivity, trophic interactions, Lake George collaborative comprehensive survey; Director, Biological Survey, N.Y. State Conservation Department; President, American Fisheries Society
Rachel Carson                                      M.A., 1932, Johns Hopkins Univeristy
U.S. Bureau of Fisheries Staff Scientist and Editor-in-Chief, Author of Silent Spring, The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea, among others; Conservationist of the year, National Wildlife Federation, Audubon Medal, National Geographic Society Medal; Elected member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1 of 3 female members that year)
Ruth Patrick                                           Ph.D., 1934, University of Virginia
Studied systematics of diatoms, island biogeography of diatoms, effects of pollution; Frances Breyer Research Chair and Founder, Patrick Center for Environmental Research, Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia; Phycological Society of America, President; American Society of Naturalists, President; Tyler Environmental Award;  Eminent Ecologist Award, E. S. A. (First female recipient); 21 honorary degrees
Margaret Bryan Davis                      Ph.D., 1957, Harvard University
Paleoecologist, used pollen accumulation rates to understand past population size; Lake circulation, Quaternary research; American Qaternary Association, President; National Academy of Sciences, President; Ecological Society of America, President; American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fellow; Eminent Ecologist Award, ESA
E. C. Pielou                                               Ph.D., 1962, University of London
Mathematical ecology, marine algal ecology; Lawson Medal of the Canadian Biological Association; Eminent Ecologist award
Again, let us know who we missed! If we get enough responses, we’ll post an update soon!

Just another awesome aquatic ecologist at work.
Just another awesome aquatic ecologist at work.