Friday, September 11, 2015

Pioneering woman ecologist - Edith Schwartz Clements

Post by Julie Charbonnier

If you’re an ecologist, you likely have heard of Dr. Frederic Clements, the botanist who forged the theory of plant succession, paving the way for the field of plant ecology. But did you know his wife, Edith Schwartz Clements was a major contributor to his success?


Edith was the first woman to earn a PhD  at the University of Nebraska in 1904. Her dissertation, available here, is a detailed account of the internal morphology of nearly 300 plants. Her work details how environmental variation influences leaf structure and has some interesting theoretical insights on phenotypic plasticity. The couple married and quickly became a dynamic force in ecology, traveling the country collecting data and founding an ecological laboratory in Colorado.
Edith describes herself as facilitator to Frederic’s research , a field assistant, a translator and a typist. In her memoir “Adventures in ecology: half a million miles: from mud to macadam” her passion and relentless enthusiasm leap from the pages. She indeed did drive nearly 600,000 miles around the country, allowing Frederic to explore and observe various plant communities. These trips would eventually coalesce into his theoretical work on plant succession.


Edith began drawing and painting the plants the couples encountered in the field. At the time, plant identification keys did not have illustrations and drawings of nature were largely artistic representations. Edith’s scientific knowledge and artistic skills captured plants in a new way: her drawings were both beautiful and scientifically accurate. Her drawings were eventually published in the couple’s guidebooks, and caught the attention of National Geographic. Edith also spoke several languages and later translated the guidebooks and many of Frederic’s manuscripts. She was a master of combining her unique skills sets to advance her husband’s work.


Edith’s contributions to her husband’s work deserves recognition, but in the early 1900’s, a woman having her own professional research career in ecology would likely have been impossible. Her lifelong dedication to her husband’s research and her own work as as scientific illustrator deserves recognition.



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