Thursday, April 4, 2013

Mary Agnes Chase (1869 – 1963)

Mary Agnes Chase was America’s first woman agrostologist.

Mary, the foremost grass specialist of her time, ended her formal education after grammar school. Interested in botany from an early age (as was her colleague Hitchcock), she supported herself by proofreading for newspapers (including the School Herald, whose editor, William Ingraham Chase, she married in 1888; she was widowed less than a year later and never remarried) and collected plants in her free time. While collecting northern Illinois and Indiana flora in the mid-1890s, she became acquainted with bryologist Ellsworth Jerome Hill, who hired her to illustrate some of the species he was describing. This friendship and experience as an illustrator led to her association with Charles Frederick Millspaugh, of the Field Museum of Natural History (now the Chicago Natural History Museum). While working as a meat inspector in the Chicago stockyards, she moonlighted as a botanical illustrator for the Field Museum, depicting species in Gramineae, Cyperaceae, and Compositae for Millspaugh's Plantae Yucatanae and Plantae Utowanae.

At Hill's suggestion, Chase took a civil-service exam to apply for a botanical-artist position at the U.S.D.A., and in 1903 accepted the position and moved to Washington, D.C. to begin working in the Division of Forage Plants. The Division was later transferred from the U.S.D.A. to the Smithsonian Institution, and while working in the grass herbarium she began a series of papers on the Paniceae, publishing the first in 1906. She met Hitchcock at the herbarium, and, with their shared interest in grasses, began collaborating with him, assisting him as illustrator and botanist over the 30-year period in which she worked first as a scientific assistant in systematic agrostology (1907), later as assistant botanist (1923) and then as associate botanist (1925). At Hitchcock's death in 1935, she succeeded him as senior botanist in charge of systematic agrostology and as custodian of the herbarium.

Chase explained her long-standing interest in grasses by noting grasses' prominence in the Bible: "Grass is what holds the earth together. Grass made it possible for the human race to abandon cave life and follow herds. Civilization was based on grass, everywhere in the world" (Schultz, E. 1949. 79-year-old Washingtonian is foremost authority on grass. St. Louis Star Times).

Chase collected grasses along the eastern and southern coasts and in the southwestern states of the U.S.,
and also in Europe, northern Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Brazil, including "two journeys across South America alone, during which she went by train, boat, donkey, and by foot, became the only woman to stand on top the highest mountain in South America, braved insects that bored into her toes, ran out of food and got hungry..." (Schultz, E. St. Louis Star Times). She spent 7 months in Brazil, and added 500 species to the herbarium as a result of her fieldwork there. Her 1897–1959 bound fieldbooks are at the Smithsonian.

Because many of the plants she collected were new to science, information about them was eagerly incorporated by Hitchcock into his definitive works, especially Manual of the Grasses of the United States (which she revised in 1950), and her own 70 publications, which included monographs on various grass genera and First Book of Grasses (1922). Chase also completed the Index to Grass Species, which had been worked on over the years by Lamson-Scribner, E. D. Merrill, F. T. Hubbard, and C. D. Niles, and she published its three volumes (containing 80,000 entries) in 1962, at the age of 93, one year before her death (see full citations in the Works by Hitchcock and Chase section below). Her discoveries made the Smithsonian's grass herbarium a resource for taxonomic research on American grasses, and her research led to the development by agricultural scientists of more nutritious and disease-resistant food crops. Chase also made time—and made news—for her suffragette activities, and was even jailed in 1918 and 1919 for her speeches and protests.

Although she formally retired from the U.S.D.A. in 1939, she continued to work at the National Herbarium, without pay, for the rest of her life, during which time she visited Venezuela to assist its Department of Agriculture in developing a range-management program.

The certificate of merit for distinguished achievement in botanical science that the Botanical Society of America awarded her in 1956 was followed two years later by an honorary doctorate granted by the University of Illinois—her first and only degree, at the age of 89. The Smithsonian made her an honorary fellow, and the Linnean Society of London elected her as a fellow in 1961. She died in Bethesda, Maryland, of congestive heart failure, on 24 September 1963, at the age of 94.

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