Women Who Revolutionized Agriculture and the World: Part 1
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
From animal lovers to plant enthusiasts, these women have made breakthroughs across multiple disciplines and beyond. We want to commemorate their work and dedication through their stories. This piece is in honor of women whose contribution to science and society are less known but of vast importance and is by no means a list of all the women who made an impact on agriculture.
María Sibylla Merian • 1614-1717 • Entomologist • German
From a young age, Maria Sibylla Merian was fascinated by insects. However, during her childhood, scientists weren’t paying much attention to bugs. At that time, even the reproductive system of insects was not really understood. With a paintbrush in hand, Merian kept a record of each of her beloved creatures by noting and painting each movement and stage of their life cycle for days, weeks, and months. At a period where most work was done from display cases, Merian was the first to observe the outdoors and bring together insects and their habitat, into a single ecological composition.
One might daresay, she was the first ecologist. In 1679, Merian published The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars, a two-volume book focused on metamorphosis. She captured the insect’s life cycle as a continuous process and searched for ecological connections between animals and plants. It was totally unique in its illustrations; unlike any other book. After getting divorced and relocating to Amsterdam, she was able to financially support her two children by commission and sale of paintings.
In 1699, age 52, Merian and her youngest daughter packed up her art supplies and boarded on a ship for Suriname. For two years, Merian fearlessly explored and illustrated new specimens. The result of this expedition was her life’s greatest work, The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname. The book included 60 vivid engravings that meticulously detailed everything of the bugs’ life cycle including notes about its ecological composition. Her ability to move between art and science led the way to a new wave of scientists such as the Swedish naturalists Carl Linnaeus.
Harriet Williams Rusell Strong • 1844-1926 • Water Conservationist • American
Harriet Williams Rusell Strong better known as the “Walnut Queen” was much more than a water conservationist. Strong was a women’s activist, musical composer, mother, agribusiness woman, inventor, and much more. At that point in time, educational institutions for women were scarce so Strong’s only formal education was from private tutors and at Mary Atkin’s Young Ladies Seminar (Mills College).
During her adult life, she suffered from severe spinal problems that prevented her from doing many of the things she loved. Besides her chronic health issues, in 1883, her husband committed suicide which left her with a 220-unprofitable-acre farm and four daughters to raise on her own. Due to the failed attempts in irrigation and drought of the wheat, rye, and barley, the farm was unsuccessful. Strong was committed to turn her farm into a fruitful business so she started investigating ways to create better irrigation in dry land.
While pondering what crops to grow on her farm she said, “I had the courage of ignorance and plenty of determination to back it up.”
She decided to transition to grow specialty crops, including 150 acres of walnuts. Rejecting the custom to plant corn between walnuts, Strong chose to plant pampas grass which became an immediate success. In less than five years, she became the leading grower of walnuts in the country with a total of $1 million in profits. Part of Strong’s financial success was attributed to her investigation of an irrigation system that saved water in reservoirs and dams allowing winter irrigation. These inventions were one of the five she patented which landed her a space at the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Strong became a renowned expert in water control and irrigation and her irrigation system was adopted by many farmers. Her breakthroughs enabled the construction of the Hoover Dam and the All-American Canal.
Throughout Strong’s lifetime she relentlessly advocated for women rights. She traveled around the country with Susan B. Anthony to promote women’s suffrage, education, and independence. She founded the Los Angeles Ebell Club and The Ladies Business League of America and was the first woman in the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and Trustee of the University of Southern California Law School. She was also responsible for saving the adobe built by Pio Pico which is currently a state park. At age 85 Strong died in a car crash, but her legacy lives on.
Mary Engle Pennington • 1872-1952 • Food Scientist • American
At age twelve, Mary Engle Pennington became allured with science when she glanced at a medical chemistry book. This fascination drove her to study chemistry and biology at the University of Pennsylvania Towne Scientific School. At that time, Pennington only received a certificate of proficiency because universities did not grant degrees to female students. Despite the obstacles, she earned a Ph.D. from the same university when she was only 22 years old. Since Pennington had trouble finding jobs, she created her own Philadelphia Clinical Laboratory where she conducted bacteriological analyses. By 1905, she joined the US Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry (currently known as the Food and Drug Administration) where she developed educational materials for farmers to handle raw milk.
Due to her exceptional work after only one year, she became the chief of the Food Research Laboratory making her the FDA’s first female lab chief. Under Pennington’s guidance, her lab would develop trailblazing standards for the safe processing of chicken and the safety procedures to help avoid spoilage of fresh food and bacterial contamination of milk. Moreover, these procedures were adopted by the food handling industry. In 1919, she decided to leave her civic service role to develop insulation for refrigeration units at American Balsa. After two years, hungry to accomplish more, Pennington started her own consulting firm where she would continue to establish national standards for spoilage-free storing and shipping of perishable foods.
She also traveled the nation and instituted standards for ice-cooled refrigerator cars and construction and insulation of refrigerators. An acclaimed expert in food preservation and refrigeration, Pennington patented inventions included a poultry-cooling rack, a sterile food product contained and a method of treating eggs. The latter invention was the masterwork that indicted her into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Pennington’s crowning achievements revolutionized the food supply and distribution system for which she received many awards and recognitions. Nonetheless, all of her acknowledgements still don’t capture the magnitude of her contributions. Until her last day, Pennington served as a consultant and as vice president of the American Institute of Refrigeration.
Alice Evans • 1881-1975 • Animal Scientist • American
Alice Evans, aka “The Pioneer of Safe Milk”, got her first taste of biology in a two-year nature course offered free of charge to rural teachers at Cornell University. This opportunity instantly instilled her passion for Biology, and she completed a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology at Cornell University.
Afterwards, Evans was awarded a scholarship and completed her master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin. Anxious to enter the workforce, Evans accepted a research position in the USDA’s Dairy Division. At a time with little knowledge of raw milk diseases, Evans made controversial discoveries about Bacillus abortus and Micrococcus melitensis. Bacillus abortus is a bacterium that affects cattle and causes spontaneous abortion. Even more terrible, M. melitensis was highly contagious between animals and could also affect humans.
Before Evans, scientists thought that the two bacteria were not related at all. Through her published research, Evans demonstrated that the strains were not only related but were capable of transferring from animals to humans.
She received many criticisms from the academic community. “The reactions to my paper was almost universal skepticism”, she said.
Even farmers accused her of scheming with companies that produced pasteurizing equipment. Due to Evan’s work, in 1920 a new genus name, Brucellosis, was given to both related strains. Unfortunately, Evans was infected with the disease and suffered from the effects for more than 20 years. Evan’s trailblazing research led to the mandatory pasteurization of milk. She also became the first female president of the American Society for Microbiology. Ultimately, worldwide criticism was met with worldwide praise.
Rachel Carson • 1907-1964 • Biologist • American
Ignited by her love of the outdoors, at the age of eight Rachel Carson wrote her first book and by age ten, Carson became a published writer for children’s magazines. Initially entering the Pennsylvania College for Women (currently Chatham University) to pursue an English degree, Biology was what she found most thrilling. Afterwards she studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and earned her M.Sc. in Zoology from John Hopkins.
Despite her eagerness to pursue a Ph.D. she was the breadwinner and caretaker for her mother, and later, two orphaned nieces. Therefore, Carson took a position as an aquatic biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. To financially support her family she also worked as a freelance writer covering topics of conservation.
Even though Carson was a highly skilled scientist, her responsibilities never included actual scientific work. Most of the time she edited scientific papers and created educational brochures of scientific literature. Eventually, Carson rose to become the Editor-in-Chief of all publications. Her ability to convert research into lyric prose landed her an article titled Undersea in The Atlantic which led to the publication of her first book, Under Sea-Wind. In 1951, Carson wrote The Sea Around Us which won the National Book Award, became a national best-seller, and solidified her stand as a scientist and writer.
Her book’s success allowed her to resign from her governmental job and devote herself to writing. In her idyllic cottage at the cost of Main she published The Edge by the Sea, another popular seller. Outraged by the impact of synthetic pesticides on human and environmental health, Carson undertook the responsibility to warn the public. After several years of arduous work and battling cancer, in Silent Spring (1962) she used an ecological perspective to meticulously report pesticides effects, specifically DDT. She argued that chemical companies were being irresponsible and challenged ag scientists and the government to carefully evaluate pesticide’s regulations.
Chemical companies tried to discredit her work, however, a governmental Science Advisory Committee validated Carson’s research. After a long battle against breast cancer Carson died two years after publishing Silent Spring. Nonetheless, the outstanding influence of her book led to major changes. The United States had its first Earth Day and then the Environmental Protection Agency was formed. Shortly after DDT was banned from use in the US. The Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were also passed due to her work. Carson wasn't around to see the change her book inspired; nonetheless, she became a powerful example of changing the world through hard work and individual agency.
Of course there is a second part to this article! So, stay tuned to discover other remarkable females that shaped the world.
Alpern, S. (2005). Harriet Williams Russell Strong: Inventor and California Businesswoman Extraordinaire. Southern California Quarterly, 87(3), 223–268. https://doi.org/10.2307/41172270
Apostol, J. (2008). Harriet Russell Strong: Horticulturalist, Conservationist, and Feminist. California History, 85(2), 50–65. https://doi.org/10.2307/25139149
Brachmann, S. (2018). Mary Engle Pennington: The Mother of Modern Food Preservation. Retrieved June 27, 2020, from IPWatchdog website: https://www.ipwatchdog.com/2018/04/02/mary-engle-pennington-mother-modern-food-preservation/id=95307/
Etheridge, K. (2011). Maria Sibylla Merian: The first ecologist? Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256297016_Maria_Sibylla_Merian_The_first_ecologist
Koehn, N. (2012). Rachel Carson’s Lessons, 50 Years After ‘Silent Spring’ . The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/business/rachel-carsons-lessons-50-years-after-silent-spring.html
Lear, L. (2015). Rachel Carson, Biography. Retrieved from The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson website: http://www.rachelcarson.org/Bio.aspx
Robinson, L. M. (1990). Regulating What We Eat: Mary Engle Pennington and the Food Research Laboratory. Agricultural History, 64(2), 143–153. https://doi.org/10.2307/3743804
Wulf, A. (2016). Maria Sibylla Merian, The Woman Who Made Science Beautiful. The Atlantic . Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/01/the-woman-who-made-science-beautiful/424620/
Yanes, J. (2020). Alice Catherine Evans, the Pioneer of Safe Milk . Retrieved from Open Mind BBVA website: https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/science/leading-figures/alice-catherine-evans-the-pioneer-of-safe-milk/