As March is Women’s History Month, it might be fun to recognize a few of the women who may not be household names but have made considerable contributions to natural history and science.

Let’s start with Mrs. Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps.  We’ll just call her Ms. Phelps.  

Born in 1793, the youngest in a family with seventeen children, it is unlikely that anyone would have predicted that she would ultimately write textbooks on botany, geology, chemistry, and natural philosophy.   Ms. Phelps, however, took full advantage of her family’s emphasis on education, debate, and independent thinking.   By the age of sixteen, she was already teaching at the local academy.

With the encouragement of family members and the support of a few key male mentors, Phelps continued to add to her knowledge and experiences. She was now teaching at the Troy Female Seminary.  Recognizing a lack of introductory science textbooks for her college students, she took it upon herself to write one.  

Page from Phelps’ Familiar Lectures on Botany.

Her most successful textbook is entitled Familiar Lectures on Botany, Explaining the Structure, Classifications, and Uses of Plants, Illustrated upon the Linnaean and Natural Methods with a Flora For Practical Botanists.  (Long titles were the standard of those times.) This volume was first published in 1829.

Phelps’ approach to constructing this text was counter to the prevailing philosophy.  First, the book was not exclusively intended to improve how a woman dealt with domestic chores.  Instead, Phelps believed that a greater understanding of science could also enhance an understanding of religion, art, and literature.   (Note that Phelps was not a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, however.  Everyone has their faults.)

The text also had a level of rigor not generally seen in books written for women.  Phelps divided the book into six parts, with fifty-three lectures.  A review of the book reveals that it resembles a keying guide.  There are many hand-drawn illustrations to help the reader envision separate parts and features of the various plants.   Additionally, Phelps included hands-on exercises to reinforce understanding of the lectures.  One project encouraged creating one’s own herbarium.  

Her work was widely recognized. Consequently, in 1850, she became the second woman to be elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (The first was Maria Mitchell, an astronomer.)

You can review a copy of Familiar Lectures on Botany by going to this link:  https://archive.org/details/familiarlectures00phel

We’ll include more profiles throughout Women’s History Month.  Stay tuned!

Sources:

Background on Phelps — https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2013/08/almira-phelps.html

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