Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Paleontologist Pens a Few Words for Her Alumnae Magazine

I was warned in a dream not to write this post.  Well, at least, that’s how I interpret the part of the dream where I was seated in a stately living room with several people (whom I did not know), and was asked to describe the main character in a particular novel.   After offering my exposition, I was the object of unceasing derision because, “Clearly, you didn't figure out who she is.”  Point well taken, for in the dream, I hadn’t finished reading the novel.
Though I read the classnotes section of my alumni bulletins fairly religiously, looking for submissions by classmates, I have to admit that I'm not sure why I do.  It's not always enjoyable.  The little squibs are a very limited kind of writing with a narrow range of content.  And too often in the reports on milestones concerning careers, weddings, children, (and later, retirement and travel), I've sensed just a faint hint of self satisfaction.  Those offerings on the darker passages in life - illness or death - bring sadness and a strong awareness of mortality.  Needless to say, I'm not one who pens such little feeds.  If I did set out to do one, I know I'd agonize over the wording until the whole exercise would bring only pain.

So it was that, when I came across paleontologist Julia Anna Gardner's six word report (written on a postcard) to the 1933 notes for the Bryn Mawr class of 1905 (her undergraduate class), I was hooked by her words because they didn't exactly fit with my preconceptions of the genre.  (1933 Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, p. 28.)  I was drawn to learn more about the woman who wrote them.  She and, presumably most of her classmates, had just entered their 50s, a momentous threshold, at least chronologically if nothing else.  If I could trace the arc of her life (the professional, if not also the personal), perhaps I might understand what she wrote, reconstruct her tone if I could.  At the risk of turning this post into a "shaggy dog story" (it isn't), I think those six words need all the context I can give them, so they're best held until the end.

During her professional career, paleontologist Julia Gardner was one of the country’s leading authorities on mollusks and stratigraphic paleontology.  As a woman in a male dominated scientific world, she was a pioneer who reached the top of her profession.  My first encounter with Gardner came when I did research for a post of mine that appeared two years ago, titled Fragility of the Ecphora.  I noted that Gardner had been honored in the naming of the extinct gastropod, Ecphora gardnerae gardnerae Wilson, whose shell was selected later as the State of Maryland’s official fossil shell.  (Though elsewhere I've referred to Gardner as a geologist, which was certainly her official title with the U.S. Geological Survey, she was, I think, first and foremost, a paleontologist.  That was the field in which she earned her doctorate and (my personal bias) it's her work identifying and distinguishing among fossils that has been of most value to me.)

Gardner was born in 1882 in South Dakota and, in her teens, moved to Massachusetts with her mother.  When she entered Bryn Mawr in 1901 and studied geology and paleontology, she was foreordained to be a pioneer because she studied under geologist Florence Bascom.  Bascom, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University and the first female geologist appointed by the USGS, taught and mentored many women who went on to careers in the sciences.

Gardner earned her A.B. in 1905.  Two years later, she became the first “regularly admitted” woman to the geology department of The Johns Hopkins University (apparently Bascom had not been so admitted – indeed, Bascom had taken her courses at Hopkins sitting behind a screen to keep her presence from the men in the classes). (USGS Science Features, Florence Bascom, Pioneer Geologist, October 16, 2012.)

Gardner earned her doctorate in 1911 and continued an on-again, off-again relationship with Hopkins as a paleontology research assistant and instructor until 1917.  In the meantime, she began field work under contract with the USGS; the contract apparently ended in 1917.

Upon the death of her mother and the outbreak of World War I, Gardner was motivated to aid those suffering from the war.  She went to France with the American Red Cross and served as an auxiliary nurse.  With the cessation of hostilities in 1919, she joined the American Friends Service Reconstruction Unit providing humanitarian assistance to war ravaged areas of France.  While with the Reconstruction Unit, she was injured in an accident (about which I have learned nothing); she then returned to the States.

That preceding paragraph is not much of an account of her war experiences, but it may be all she wanted us to have.  In an article Gardner wrote for The Johns Hopkins University Alumni Magazine (Volume 28, Number 2, 1940, p. 37-42), titled Notes on Travel and Life, she dealt with her time in France in an understated, matter-of-fact tone, revealing little.  Indeed, she disposed of her wartime experiences at the outset of the piece:
Late in March, 1920, I entered the port of New York after an absence of more than 2 years in a foreign land.  During that time, I had lived in the present, neither looking back upon the years of training at Hopkins nor forward to the necessity of finding a job in a country basically changed by the World War.
That's it for the war.  The rest of the piece consisted mostly of often humorous accounts of the vicissitudes of field work.  The initial lengthy anecdote concerns her efforts to learn to drive so she wouldn't be a burden on other scientists when venturing out to do field work.  (This puts the lie to the claim made by some that she drove ambulances while in France.)  The article ended on a somber note, given that, in 1940 (when she was writing), “all Europe seems about to crash.”  That ending offers an interesting symmetry to this essay, all the lightness of her anecdotes about her field work travails are straddled by the darkness of two wars.  A glimmer of insight into her character?  I think so; she chose to emphasize the light.

Immediately upon her return to the States in March, 1920, Gardner was hired by the USGS and began a career with the Survey that lasted until she retired in 1952.  In 1924, she was promoted to associate geologist and then, in 1928, to geologist.  In 1926 and 1929 and, later, in 1937, Gardner traveled extensively in Europe, attending international geological congresses and studying key geological sites.

In the 1920s, she brought out the first five volumes in a seminal series of USGS Professional Papers on The Molluscan Fauna of the Alum Bluff Group of Florida.  Later in her career, she returned to the subject and published several more in this series.  (These reports are available from the USGS.)

During World War II, Gardner joined the USGS’ Military Geology Unit which provided analysis of different terrains of military interest to the U.S. Army.  The MGU produced topographical maps and helped to identify potential airplane landing sites, as well as sources of water, road building materials, and strategic minerals.

There's a fascinating bit of work the MGU undertook during the war which involved Gardner.  In late 1944, balloons carrying incendiary bombs began dropping from the sky in northwestern US and Canada.  Though it was generally believed the Japanese were behind the balloon assault, the idea the balloons were being launched in Japan was dismissed, given the 5,000 miles they would have had to travel.  Among the scenarios conjured up by military intelligence was that landing parties from Japanese submarines came ashore on U.S. west coast beaches and released the balloons there.  The mystery was turned over to the MGU.  Ultimately it was correctly concluded they had been launched in Japan, a conclusion prompted in part by analysis of the composition of the sand from sandbags used as ballast and recovered from several unexploded balloons.  The MGU identified specific beaches in Japan from which the sand might have come.  Gardner's role in the analysis consisted of determining that there was no coral in the sand, meaning it had from beaches along cold water.  In one fell swoop, she removed the southern third of Japan from the search for the originating beaches.

Her time with the MGU was summed up by geologist Clifford M. Nelson and historian Mary Ellen Williams as follows:
 Her geological skills, fluency in languages, resourcefulness, energy, and gentle humor made her invaluable to the MGU and she was revered by her colleagues. (p. 261)
(This passage appears in the entry on Gardner in Notable American Women:  The Modern Periodedited by Barbara Sicherman, et al., 1980, p. 260-262.  This is a well researched resource and I leaned on it a great a deal in composing this post.  There are several accounts of the Japanese balloons and the MGU work on the mystery of their origin.  John McPhee penned a great one titled Balloons of War, one of three pieces he wrote that appeared in the same issue of The New Yorker (January 29, 1996) under the collective title of The Gravel Page.)

After the war, Gardner went to Japan and Palau, receiving an assignment to the National Resources Section in the Supreme Commander’s headquarters where she worked on mapping the geology of West Pacific islands.  Following her retirement from the USGS in 1952, she returned to the Survey under contract to study mollusks in the West Pacific.

In ill health for the last several years of her life, she suffered a stroke and died in 1960 at home in Bethesda, Maryland.

Julia Gardner reached the top of chosen field, published extensively, and had her share of adventures - during and after two world wars.  Paleontologist Druid Wilson (who named a gastropod for her) characterized her publications as “foundation stones and bench marks in Coastal Plain stratigraphy and paleontology that insure [her] a high place with the pioneers in the geology of the region.”  (Wilson’s useful, though somewhat limited piece memorializing Gardner appeared in the Nautilus (Julia Anna Gardner:  1882-1960, Volume 75, Number 3, July, 1961 to April, 1962, p. 122-123.))

She apparently was exceedingly generous.  The paleontological research literature on mollusks and stratigraphy from the period is marked by authors’ notes of gratitude to her, thanking her for her assistance in helping to identify different fossils or for information she provided on the geology of an area under study.  Wilson wrote that Julia Gardner was known among her “wide circle of friends” for having often offered “some kindness, some encouragement, some tangible assistance, timely, but given unexpectedly.”

Unfortunately, she didn’t write an autobiography.  Notes on Travel and Life, her piece from 1940 in the Hopkins Alumni Magazine doesn’t count, and I was dismayed to read that the bulk of her personal papers was destroyed by her literary executor.

So, back to what launched this ramble, what is one to make of her contribution to the notes of the doings of the class of 1905 that appeared in the March, 1933 edition of the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin?

All told, there were eight reports from this class, including Gardner’s.  The news from most of the others concerned their children.  For instance, one alum was traveling to England and France with four of her brood, the daughter of another had married a young man in banking (tellingly described as “a graduate of Lawrenceville and a former student at Princeton” – italics are mine), and the three offspring of one classmate were reported to be at Cornell Medical School (a son), working on a master’s at Harvard (another son), and enrolled as a freshman at Skidmore (a daughter, “my baby”).  It wasn’t all children, one alum had been sick, another was the author of a new book – These United States and How They Came To Be (I think this was this a picture-filled children’s history of the U.S.).

Julia Gardner's offering?
Same name, same house, same job.
Lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek?  Bittersweet about choices made?  A touch sarcastic about choices others had made?  Upon reading her words, I laughed, a response I suspect she intended.  But, I'll be the first to admit, I haven't really figured out who she was.

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