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Happy Ada Lovelace Day! Honoring Eminent Ecologist E. Lucy Braun

It’s Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of celebration of women in STEM fields. The Geek Feminism blog made the point in the post “How Not to Do Ada Lovelace Day” that the ideal outcome of ALD would be to end the invisibility of women in science and technology, and so participants should strive for more than generic “Yay, women in science!” statements. I agree, and as most of my mentors have been men, my contribution to the ALD blog carnival is to profile a woman in science whose work has been really important to my field (ecology): E. Lucy Braun.

Dr. E. Lucy Braun. Photo courtesy of the Botanical Society of America

Emma Lucy Braun was born in 1889 to rather strict and controlling parents; much of her early education was at home, as her mother was a teacher. She and her older sister, Annette, were fond of the outdoors, and Lucy began pressing plants in high school. Lucy went on to study geology and botany in college, becoming the second woman to earn a PhD from the University of Cincinnati in 1914 (Annette, with a PhD in Entomology, was first). Dr. Braun ultimately become a professor of Plant Ecology at the University of Cincinnati, training 13 MS and 1 PhD student (nine of whom were women) before retiring from teaching to focus on her research. This was highly unusual for women professors at the time, as most focused on teaching, rather than graduate mentoring and publishing original research.

The Braun sisters never married, but lived together in their Victorian home in the Ohio valley until Lucy’s death in 1971. They bought an automobile in 1930, taking extensive trips throughout the Appalachians to map, record and photograph the flora. Often, they had to contend with the dangers of moonshiners in the Kentucky mountains, but two sisters traveling alone weren’t typically considered a threat (and they never reported the mountain stills), so they often befriended the locals who would then direct them to the best mountain trails.

Dr. Braun published 180 articles in 20 journals during her career, but is perhaps most widely remembered for her 1950 book Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America, which was the culmination of 25 years of fieldwork and 65,000 miles traveled for field excursions. This book is a classic reference in ecology that is still widely used today. She was the first to identify the mixed mesophytic forest as a distinct system, identified several new species and varieties, and worked tirelessly to promote conservation and preservation in her home state of Ohio. Her work on glacial refugia and postglacial plant migrations provided some of the early foundations for North American paleoecology (though many of her hypotheses were later disproved by paleo-reconstructions from pollen data). Unlike many early women in science, Dr. Braun was recognized by her peers for her contributions; she was included in the 50 most outstanding botanists by the American Botanical Society in 1956, was the first woman officer of the Ecological Society of America (vice president) and elected the first female president of ESA in 1950 (ESA also has an award in her name).

One of the things that I find most interesting about Lucy is not just the fact that she was an influential and well-respected botanist in a male-dominated field, but she is so often described in terms of her strong will (one male colleague called her a “woman of steel”) and confrontational nature. A former student described Lucy as embodying “four D’s”: she was dedicated, determined, dominating (Lucy was rather controlling of her sister Annette and their finances), and demanding of her students. Others described her as confident, with a strong self-image. These were not particularly desirable traits in women in the first half of the last century (they’re still typically frowned upon)! In a remembrance published in the Ohio Biological Survey’s Biology Notes, her former student relates an anecdote about Lucy:

“The Kenneth Casters of the University of Cincinnati tell about an incident when a micropaleontologist came to lecture in the Geology Department. Because this lecture was after Lucy’s retirement, the newer students in attendance knew nothing of E. Lucy Braun. To them the two white-haired sisters appeared like two characters out of Alice and Wonderland. As the lecture continued, challenging Dr. Braun’s origins of the mixed mesophytic forest, Lucy’s lips grew tighter and tighter. When the speaker sat down she rose to battle and made a ferocious attack upon him which was follwed by a vast silence which filled the room. Finally, the speaker arose and said, “Thank you, Dr. Braun, I wanted to hear your opinion.”

So, the next time someone asks you if you can name a famous woman scientist, you can name Emma Lucy Braun, which is better than 65% of Americans and 66% of UK residents can do. And, because it’s equally important to highlight the accomplishments of current women in science, I’ll leave you with a few women paleoscientists you should know: paleontologist Dr. Liz Hadly at Stanford, paleoecosystem ecologist Dr. Kendra McLauchlan at Kansas State, paleoclimatologist and diatomist Dr. Sheri Fritz at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, paleofire ecologist Dr. Cathy Whitlock at Montana State University, and biogeographer Dr. Felisa Smith at the University of New Mexico.

P. S. To honor Ada Lovelace Day, why not make a contribution to a Donors Choose classroom project in honor of a woman in STEM who has inspired or mentored you?

For more information on Dr. E. Lucy Braun and other women in ecology, check out:

Damschen, Ellen, Kristen Rosenfeld, Mary Wyer, Deena Murphey-Medley, Thomas Wentworth, & Nick Haddad. 2005. Visibility matters: increasing knowledge of women’s contributions to ecology. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 3 (4): 212-219.

Durelle, Lucile. 1981. Memories of E. Lucy Braun. Ohio Biol. Surv. Biol. Notes No. 15. Stuckey & Reese, Eds.

Langenheim, Jean. 1996. Early history and progress of women ecologists: Emphasis upon recent contributions. Annual Review of Ecology & Systematics 27: 1-53.

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Jacquelyn Gill

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