Katherine Greacen Nelson: Advocate for the public appreciation of earth science
Published:August 07, 2018
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Joanne Kluessendorf, Donald G. Mikulic, 2018. "Katherine Greacen Nelson: Advocate for the public appreciation of earth science", Women and Geology: Who Are We, Where Have We Come From, and Where Are We Going?, Beth A. Johnson
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Katherine Greacen Nelson (1913–1982) achieved many firsts in her career, but sharing her enthusiasm for geology was first and foremost to her.
As the first child born into a military family in 1913, Katherine Fielding Greacen was exposed to nature and travel at an early age. By 1934, she received her bachelor degree from Vassar College, winning a prize for excellence in geology. Just four years later, she received the first Ph.D. in geology from Rutgers University and was the first woman awarded a doctorate in any discipline at that school. Soon after, Katherine was hired by Milwaukee-Downer College as the geology/geography department and curator of its Greene Museum. She left campus for the Texas oilfields in 1943 to do her part for the war effort, working as a petroleum geologist and paleontologist. Having returned to Milwaukee-Downer in 1946, she left again in 1954. The newly founded University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) acquired the Milwaukee-Downer campus in 1956, and Katherine became the first faculty member and chair of the geology department. She later brokered the purchase of the Greene collection for UWM and established a public education program at the museum. Serving many professional societies and lay organizations throughout her life, Nelson was the first woman president of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in 1952, and the first woman to receive the Neil Miner Award from the National Association of Geology Teachers in 1978.
Throughout her career, Katherine’s mission was to help people understand their surroundings, appreciate geologic time and processes, and feel awe for all that has gone before. To these ends, she put her effort and energy into reaching the widest audience by presenting public lectures, helping geology hobbyists, giving museum tours to schoolchildren, writing popularized articles, and giving media interviews. She even explained the importance of Wisconsin’s glacial features to politicians to help establish the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve. Katherine especially enjoyed taking students into the field, many for their first exposure to the landscape. As a result, she inspired generations of students to share their (and her) knowledge and enthusiasm, which continues to support her goal of putting the appreciation of geology and the landscape on par with cultural pursuits.
As a woman geologist, Katherine achieved many “firsts” in her career, but sharing her enthusiasm for the earth was first and foremost to her. In this paper, we reveal the people and places that shaped Katherine’s philosophy, influenced her career, and instilled the passion for geology for which she was famous. Her willingness to share her knowledge with everyone to help them appreciate the Earth and all its wonders has created a far-reaching legacy that continues to affect our society today.
EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION
Born in 1913 in California astride the Sierra Madre fault zone of the San Gabriel Mountains, Katherine Fielding Greacen was destined to a life dedicated to geology. While little is documented about Katherine’s early life, her father, U.S. Army officer Walter S. Greacen, was well educated and well traveled. By the time Katherine was five years old, her father had gone from deployment in the southern California desert to quell the Mexican Revolution to moving his young family to Hawaii from 1916 to 1917, and finally to a post at Rutgers University in New Jersey, in 1918, where he directed the ROTC. As the first-born child in this military family, Katherine learned important traits like adaptability, self-reliance, and confidence, which would serve her well throughout her life, especially in a career pursued by few women.
When it was time for Katherine to enter college, her father suggested that she study geology at Vassar College, a women’s college in Poughkeepsie, New York. Geology had been taught at Vassar since its opening in 1865 and a “cabinet” of geological specimens was an important educational element from the start (Flad, 2017). As early as 1871, professors began taking geology students on extensive field trips during spring break and over the summer (Flad, 2017) to collect fossils and minerals and learn about geological features. This tradition continued during Katherine’s time at Vassar, and by this time the natural history cabinet had grown into a proper museum complete with a mastodon skeleton. When graduating with her B.A. in June 1934, Katherine received the Erminnic A. Smith Memorial Prize for Excellence in Geology (Anonymous, 1934)—and she promptly got a job at Macy’s Department Store (Nelson, 1978).
Fortunately, she didn’t remain a salesclerk for long. In 1935, Katherine entered graduate school at Rutgers University, where her father, now an army colonel, was professor of military science and tactics. Within three years, she had earned her Ph.D. in geology with a dissertation on the bryozoans of the Vincentown Formation, settling a long-standing controversy about the age of this unit. It was published as a New Jersey State Geological Survey Bulletin in 1941 (Greacen, 1941).
This was the first doctorate in geology ever awarded at Rutgers (Paull and Paull, 1985), and she was the first woman to receive a doctorate at the university in any discipline (Harvey and Ogilvie, 2000). Her accomplishments at Rutgers were remarkable given that women composed only three percent of the 55 students receiving doctorates annually in geology from U.S. universities between 1931 and 1940 (Ray, 1941), and composing only four percent of earth science doctorates between 1920 and 1970 (Aldrich, 1990).
Like Vassar, Rutgers had a geology museum, established in 1872 (Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, 2017), which was integral to geology instruction. According to Wyse Jackson and Spencer Jones (2007), after the 1920s, women often made major contributions to geological research and to science as a whole through their work in museums, which they attributed, in part, to the influence of women’s colleges providing geology in their curriculum. The exposure to university geology museums, as well as to geological field trips, would prove to shape Katherine’s future career.
Milwaukee-Downer College and Greene Museum
Following graduate school, Katherine obtained a teaching position at Milwaukee-Downer College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she was a one-woman Department of Geology and Geography as well as curator of the Greene Memorial Museum (Fig. 1). Rossiter (1982) observed that, together with heavy teaching loads and the scarce to nonexistent funding and facilities at women’s colleges, it was difficult for faculty to conduct much research during this period.
Fortunately, Katherine couldn’t have found a better place to establish a career devoted to geology, education, and community outreach. Milwaukee-Downer was the successor to the Milwaukee Female Seminary, a women’s college founded in 1848 that taught science to women (Kieckhefer, 1951). As such, the school predates the founding of the women’s colleges in the eastern United States, with the exception of Mount Holyoke (Jupp, 1981). Additionally, early in its history, Catherine Beecher, the pioneering crusader for women’s higher education, came to the Milwaukee Female Seminary to ensure that instruction would be at a collegiate level, and it was the only one of her experimental schools to survive for more than a few years (Kieckhefer, 1951; Peterson, 1968). The Seminary was later renamed the Milwaukee Female College. Milwaukee-Downer itself was the result of an 1895 merger between Milwaukee Female College and Downer College (formerly Wisconsin Female College) of Fox Lake, Wisconsin (Kieckhefer, 1951).
From their very beginning, geology was an important subject taught at both the Milwaukee Female College (Kieckhefer, 1951) and the Wisconsin Female College (Nelson, 1953a). Geology continued to be taught at Milwaukee-Downer after the merger, with laboratory work and field trips emphasized in all science classes, and, later, a study of the geology of Wisconsin was included (Nelson, 1953a). College newspapers (Anonymous, 1947; 1948) (Fig. 2) from the 1940s show that Katherine conducted extensive field trips for her geology classes as well as for other interested students to places like the Wisconsin Dells, Devil’s Lake, Cave of the Mounds, the Driftless Area, Holy Hill, and museums in Chicago. Her field trips even received coverage in The Milwaukee Journal (Anonymous, 1942), “Taking advantage of tires, gas and cars before rationing cuts off such possibilities completely, a group from Milwaukee-Downer set out in three cars … for a weekend trip to study the geology of central Wisconsin. They stopped at a quarry en route to Devil’s Lake for fossils and picnicked on the west bluff of the lake before going on to their main objective, the Dells.”
In addition to the study of geology, Milwaukee-Downer and its predecessors also had a history of community outreach. In 1874, the Ladies’ Art and Science Class, a forerunner of adult continuing education, was established at the Milwaukee Female College (Nelson, 1965). Led by chemist Charles Farrar, these classes were attended by several hundred Milwaukee women. A feminist before his time, Farrar believed there should be no difference in the quality of education for men and women, and he dropped the word “female” from the Milwaukee College (and from Vassar College where he had been previously) (Nelson, 1965). The 1874–1875 school catalogue notes that field trips were part of the geology classes taught to these women as well (Nelson, 1953a).
The Milwaukee Female Seminary realized the importance of a museum to its goals early on (Kluessendorf and Mikulic, 1993). A museum was established as early as 1852 (Nelson, 1965) and, in 1855, Increase Lapham, Wisconsin’s first scientist, initiated a “Curiosity Society,” with a group called the “Rockites.” The Rockites learned about Wisconsin geology and collected geological specimens to add to the museum (Kieckhefer, 1951). Less than 20 years after the Milwaukee-Downer merger, the museum grew dramatically when an important collection of worldwide minerals and Milwaukee-Chicago area fossils, assembled by the late local businessman Thomas A. Greene, was “donated” to the College in 1912 (Nelson, 1953a). Greene’s wife, Elizabeth, had been one of the first woman trustees of the Milwaukee College and a member of the Ladies’ Art and Science Class (Nelson, 1953a), and his son Colonel Howard Greene and daughter Mary Greene Upham, an 1880 alumna of Milwaukee-Downer, each served as trustees for more than 30 years and facilitated the “donation” of the collection (Kieckhefer, 1951). Mrs. Upham also donated US$10,000 to build a fireproof museum building for the collection, which was erected in 1913 (Nelson, 1953a). Although commonly referred to as a donation, in reality, the Greene family retained control of the collection, kept it separate from the College museum, and required the school to meet a number of conditions in order to keep the collection on campus. The Thomas A. Greene Memorial Museum became an essential scientific and educational resource at Milwaukee-Downer, boasting 75,000 specimens of minerals and fossils (Kieckhefer, 1951). Fortunately, Katherine had had exposure to college geology museums at both Vassar and Rutgers, so she was prepared to undertake curatorial duties.
Beginning with the Greene Memorial Museum Annual Report for 1939 (Greacen, 1939), her first year at Milwaukee-Downer, Katherine recorded the progress she was making in the museum collections with cataloguing, labeling, organizing, and washing soot from the nearby power plant off the specimens. She also included in each report a litany of repairs that were needed for the museum building and display cases. Although she sometimes had a student assistant to help with museum work, true curatorial duties fell to Katherine, competing with her college committee and teaching responsibilities in the Department of Geology and Geography.
Although between as many as 300 local elementary, high school, and college students had visited the Greene Museum annually before Katherine arrived at Milwaukee-Downer (Fig. 3), she quickly welcomed more scientific visitors to the museum, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1940), Dr. John Ball from Northwestern University (1941), the Midwest Federation of Geological Societies (1942), Prof. A.J. Carlson from the University of Chicago (1943), the Association of Geology Teachers (1947), and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters (1951).
Katherine recognized that “one way of increasing the value of the Greene collection is by publication of information concerning it, so that its high quality can be made known to the kind of people who might use that information in furthering research and advancing knowledge” (Greacen 1943, p. 5). During 1942–1943, Katherine and John Ball undertook a comparative study of more than 7000 Silurian fossils from Cook County, Illinois, in the Greene collection, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and Northwestern University. She considered that a study like this would “do much to make the Greene collection more widely known and greater potential use to scientists, as the donors wished,” and “should bring prestige to the Greene Memorial Museum and Milwaukee-Downer College” (Greacen, 1943, p. 4), and they published their results in 1946 (Greacen and Ball, 1946a, 1946b).
In 1942, 46 women, who were employed mostly at women’s colleges, represented seven percent of all college geology teachers in the United States (U.S. Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1943), and Katherine was one of them. Before World War II, most U.S. geologists worked in the oil and mining industries (Goodman, 1948). After 1942, as these companies began to lose male geologists to the war effort, women also went to work for them, including some women who left college teaching (Goodman, 1948). Although oil companies still employed half of all geologists during World War II, women tended to be hired as “office geologists” who handled drafting, cartography, and laboratory work (Goodman, 1948); they were not hired for field exploration (Ray, 1941). Women were only about three percent of the 10,000–12,000 geologists estimated as employed in the United States in 1946 (Goodman, 1948), and, by the end of the war, about one-third of women employed in geology worked in industry and 40 percent worked at federal and state geological surveys (Heminway, 1947). Yet, in 1948, women geologists were still recommending to female geology students that they should also acquire skills in drafting, typing, stenography, and report writing, as well as the ability to speak one or two foreign languages, which they said could be useful as “entering wedges” into employment (Goodman, 1948, p. 7–12). Goodman (1948) noted that, although the preference for men would continue in the geological surveys after the war, “the woman geologist who is as good as or better than a competing male geologist will have some opportunity for employment” (p. 7–11).
In 1943, Katherine left Milwaukee for Midland, Texas, to work as a petroleum geologist and paleontologist, first for Shell Oil and, later, for Hunt Oil (Kluessendorf et al., 1984a), staying until 1946. She considered her time in the “oil patch” as “valuable experience, which made [her] a better teacher when [she] returned to Milwaukee three years later” (Nelson, 1978). Women composed just two percent of the 5000 members of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in 1947 (Goodman, 1948). Katherine became a member during her time in Texas, beginning her lifelong affiliation with this organization (Kluessendorf et al., 1984a), which was just one of many professional societies that she served over the course of her career.
As there were no Greene Memorial Museum Annual Reports for 1944–1946, it is likely there was no curator at the museum during her absence. Following the war, Katherine returned to Milwaukee-Downer to a schedule packed with teaching and curating. But things were beginning to change during the postwar years at women’s colleges across the nation—their faculties and administrations were becoming more male, which was viewed as “upgrading” the institution (Rossiter, 1982). Rossiter (1982) noted, “It became a truism” that higher salaries were necessary to lure good faculty from both industry and university posts, although “competitive salaries” became “a kind of code phrase for the mainstreaming and consequent masculinization of the women’s college faculty” (p. 225). By the late 1960s, even students began to challenge the all-female nature of women’s college campuses (Rossiter, 1982).
Milwaukee-Downer was no different. Since 1913, five women (and, briefly, one man) taught geology and geography and staffed the Greene Museum (Nelson, 1953a). In the 1942 Cumtux, the Milwaukee-Downer yearbook, Katherine was pictured as “distinguished faculty” with four other female science/mathematics instructors, all of whom held doctorates from major universities (Fig. 4). The college’s first two presidents were also dynamic women: Ellen Sabin (from 1895 to 1921) and Lucia Briggs (from 1921 to 1951) (Kieckhefer, 1951). But, in 1951, the school hired its first male president, John B. Johnson Jr. (Kleinman, 1997), who would also be its last president.
Johnson had a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago and had taught for five years at Park College in Parkville, Missouri, before coming to Milwaukee. As president, Johnson transformed the essential character of Milwaukee-Downer (Kleinman, 1997). During his tenure, he increased the male faculty nearly every year, tripling the number of men (from 18 to 53) who had taught during the 30-year-long Briggs administration (Kleinman, 1997). In fact, from 1924 to 1932 during Briggs’s tenure, the faculty had been composed entirely of women, most of whom were single and lived at the college (Kleinman, 1997). Under Johnson, in 1957, female faculty were no longer provided campus housing. Significantly, Johnson initiated the hiring of part-time, ad hoc faculty to teach one or two courses, and, unlike Briggs, was not interested in their forming a long-term relationship with the college (Kleinman, 1997). Under Briggs, there had been a steady increase in student enrollment, peaking at 444 in 1946–1947, but during Johnson’s administration, which lasted until 1964, enrollment at the college declined annually to a low of 176 in 1962–1963 (Kleinman, 1997). In fact, enrollment figures were in such serious decline that they were not even reported in college catalogues during the last three years of the Johnson period (Kleinman, 1997). At the same time, however, the student-teacher ratio declined during the Johnson administration, so that the number of faculty was at its highest at the same time that enrollment was at its lowest (Kleinman, 1997). Along with large faculty salary increases, this demonstrates Johnson’s increasingly liberal use of college funds (Kleinman, 1997).
Kleinman (1997) observed that the changes Johnson made had the effect of transforming Milwaukee-Downer College into a more typical Midwestern institution. Unlike Sabin and Briggs who recruited faculty from the East, his faculty came from the Midwest. By increasing the male presence at the school, he undermined the concept of the female enclave that had been established. He eroded the liberal arts tradition at the college and the responsiveness given to the uniqueness of each of the students, changing the college’s historic character and mounting a major challenge to its stability, as most of the college’s funding traditionally came from wealthy Milwaukee families whose daughters were Milwaukee-Downer alumnae. Overseeing the college’s continued decline, Johnson eventually agreed to merge it with Lawrence College in Appleton in 1964, and Milwaukee-Downer ceased to exist.
In addition to the many other changes Johnson made, in the early 1950s, he also decided to close the Department of Geology and Geography and the Greene Museum. Apparently, his intent for this closure was to save the money supporting the department and Katherine’s salary and to sell the Greene collection to raise funds for other purposes at the college (Frank H. Nelson, 1991, personal commun.). As part of this plan, Johnson contacted several major universities, such as Princeton, and offered to sell them the Greene collection (Frank H. Nelson, 1991, personal commun.). Colonel Howard Greene, Thomas Greene’s son, who was still living at this time, along with the daughters of his deceased sister, objected to Johnson’s plans. Specifically, the family retained legal ownership of the collection, making it impossible for the college to sell it. In addition, Johnson’s proposed actions would fail to meet a number of stipulations in the 1911 agreement between the family and Milwaukee-Downer. These stipulations required that the collection be kept intact, that the collection remain in the separate fireproof building provided for it, and that the collection stay in Milwaukee. In particular, they required that the college “retain on its faculty someone qualified to superintend the care and preservation of the collection, and to give instruction in geology and mineralogy to such students as may wish to the study the same.” When he became aware that the family wouldn’t allow him to sell the collection, Johnson dropped his efforts, instead requesting permission from them to temporarily break the clause in the 1911 agreement that required employment of a geology instructor and museum curator. In 1993, Carolyn Greene, Howard Greene’s wife, told the authors that a Milwaukee-Downer official had claimed to them that the woman (undoubtedly Katherine) teaching geology and curating the collection was incompetent and doing a poor job. Frank Nelson, Katherine’s husband, who served as her legal counsel at this time, found these claims baseless, feeling that they were made only to convince the Greene family that there were reasons to justify eliminating the position. In 1953, the family agreed to the college closing the Department of Geography and Geology and Greene Museum until 1960. As a result, Katherine lost her job. By 1960, Milwaukee-Downer had failed to rehire a geology instructor and museum curator in violation of the 1953 agreement, and the family could have taken back the collection, but did not. In 1956, Thomas Greene’s son Howard had died. Faced with continued violation of past agreements by the college, the grandchildren, who were less interested in the collection, decided to transfer its ownership and oversight to Milwaukee-Downer; however, by this time, the entire college was up for sale.
In the final Greene Memorial Museum Annual Report (Nelson, 1954a), Katherine refers to herself as “the retiring Curator” and discusses her concerns for the future of the museum and geology program (p. 4–5):
… but [the curator] cannot help wondering and hoping that plans will be made for a bright future. Geology and Geography have been taught at Milwaukee-Downer for more than 100 years. The Greene Memorial Museum was dedicated 50 years ago last October 31. It seems especially unfortunate that, with such a rich background, it now seems necessary, for financial reasons, to do away with the offerings of the department and the Museum, even for such a temporary period as eight to ten years. Milwaukee-Downer is singularly fortunate in having such a fine collection of minerals and fossils, and if money could be found to employ three people instead of one (or none)—one to teach geography, one to teach geology, and one to develop and promote the use of the Museum, the College might soon push itself into prominence as a fine place for an undergraduate major in geology and geography. But one person trying to do all three jobs cannot feel adequate to offer majors in both the natural sciences and the social sciences at the same time, while also trying to make the Museum available to numerous groups … I hope that a way of restoring geology and geography to Milwaukee-Downer’s curriculum can soon be found, and that the doors of the Greene Memorial Museum will not have to remain closed for many years…
Unfortunately, Johnson did shutter the Greene Museum and suspended instruction in geology and geography in 1954. As a result, Katherine was “retired” in June of that year from Milwaukee-Downer and had to find employment elsewhere. She became head of the teenage department of the Milwaukee north side center YWCA and additionally taught geology at the YWCA education department (Anonymous, 1954). She also taught at other Milwaukee institutions, including Milwaukee-Downer Seminary, Wisconsin State College, and the University of Wisconsin Extension (Paull and Paull, 1985). The museum and department at Milwaukee-Downer remained closed until 1962 when Johnson appointed Ronald Tank, who had just received his doctorate at the University of Indiana, as assistant professor of geology and geography and curator of the Greene Museum (Johnson, 1962). Describing the Greene collection as “one of the finest of its kind in the mid-west,” Johnson noted that the Greene heirs recently had given it outright to the College and that “increasing use will be made of this fine collection for instructional purposes, for research and for exhibition” (Johnson, 1962, p. 22). But in 1964, Milwaukee-Downer merged with Lawrence College, and no improvements to the stature of the museum had been undertaken by Johnson.
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
In 1956, the Wisconsin State College (normal school) and the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Extension Division merged to form the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) (UWM, 2016). Katherine joined the UWM faculty at that time (Fig. 5) and, by 1961, she had been instrumental in establishing the Geology Department, serving as its first chair (again as a department of one) (Kluessendorf et al., 1984b). Over the next nearly three decades, Katherine worked on dozens of university committees and served as a member of the faculty senate (Kluessendorf et al., 1984b). Even after joining the UWM faculty, her interest in public outreach motivated her to continue teaching geology classes at the YWCA, which were supplemented by weekend field trips (Anonymous, 1957a).
In 1963, it was announced that Milwaukee-Downer would sell its campus to the adjacent UWM campus and merge with Lawrence College in Appleton (Anonymous, 1963). At this time, several institutions, including the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Field Museum, Yale University, Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, were interested in acquiring the Greene collection from Milwaukee-Downer (Kluessendorf and Mikulic, 1993). When Katherine learned that the Greene collection might move to Appleton or be sold to another institution, she found the potential loss of this outstanding educational resource “unthinkable” (Kluessendorf et al., 1984b). In order to keep the collection in Milwaukee, she launched a campaign to get the University of Wisconsin to buy it from Milwaukee-Downer, taking her fight to the Board of Regents and the Governor’s office (Kluessendorf et al., 1984b).
In 1964, UWM purchased the Milwaukee-Downer College buildings and acquired the Greene collection of fossils and minerals from Milwaukee-Downer for US$20,000 (Anonymous, 1964). The value of the collection was estimated at US$80,000–US$100,000, and the chair of the UWM Geology Department at that time, Richard Paull, declared that the museum could not be open to the public until “the University provides sufficient funds.” Katherine, then the museum’s acting curator, said that the acquisition of the collection was a big boost for the geology department, but that a full time curator was needed before it could be displayed, because some valuable stibnite crystals had already disappeared from the collection since it became the property of UWM (Anonymous, 1965). In 1970, the Greene Museum was finally opened to the general public following the remodeling of the building and displays (Anonymous, 1970) (Fig. 6). “Professor Katherine Nelson, who has overseen much of the work on the collection” noted that the Museum “now can become a public attraction and teaching aid …” (Anonymous, 1970). The Milwaukee Journal (Otto, 1970) observed that Katherine “has been busy these last weeks, checking to be sure each specimen is properly labeled and having the museum itself cleaned and polished for public inspection.” Katherine would eventually be responsible for establishing a public education program at the museum, which served more than 20,000 visitors in a little over a decade (Kluessendorf et al., 1984a).
Throughout her career, Katherine belonged to many professional organizations and held office in many of them. Although the first group she joined after arriving in Milwaukee was not a professional society, Katherine was delighted to meet a “livewire group of amateurs, calling themselves the Wisconsin Geological Society, which welcomed [her] into membership, and [she] welcomed their companionship and interest” (Nelson, 1978). She had a fruitful relationship with the Society for many years, as indicated by her helping with their events such as sale of mineral specimens (Fig. 7) and serving a term as its president in 1941–1942 (Kluessendorf et al., 1984b). For her long-term service to the Society, she was named an honorary member (Paull and Paull, 1985). In 1950, Katherine married Milwaukee attorney Frank H. Nelson in New Brunswick, New Jersey (New York Times, 1950). Their engagement announcement notes that “a common interest in geology” had brought them together (Parnell, 1950). Katherine met Frank through their membership in the Wisconsin Geological Society, which she said was “the greatest gem” she found in that group (Nelson, 1978). The Nelsons lived on Wahl Avenue in Milwaukee. Katherine noted, “You can recognize our house. We have rocks all around the outside—and inside” (Otto, 1970).
Katherine was proud of becoming a charter member of the Association of College Geology Teachers (later National Association of Geoscience Teachers) shortly after its founding and soon after she arrived at Milwaukee-Downer (Fig. 8). She was the only woman member, likely because the association was founded in the Midwest where there were few women’s colleges where female faculty would have been employed. She described how “one day in the spring of 1939 … something really important happened. I received an airmail, special delivery letter … [that] urged me to join” the Association of College Geology Teachers “for their annual meeting in May” (Nelson, 1978, p. 20). Katherine declared that she “leaped at the opportunity … as the youngest, newest teacher at the meeting.” In 1948, she served as the association’s secretary (National Research Council, 1948). She was vice-president of the Central Section in 1967–1968 (Anonymous, 1969), and president in 1968–1969 (Harvey and Ogilvie, 2000). In 1978, she was the first woman recipient of the prestigious Neil Miner Award (Fig. 9), which had been established in 1953, that recognizes one individual annually who “has made exceptional contributions to the stimulation of interest in the earth sciences” (Anonymous, 1983). During her acceptance speech for the award, Katherine noted that “one in 26 [recipients] was 4%” (which she must have assumed wasn’t too bad) and she predicted there would be more women receiving the award after her (and there have been four additional women from 1979 to 2017, reaching 10% of the total number of awardees).
As noted by Anderson (1980), Katherine had a long history of participation in the Tri-State Geological Field Conference, which was initially established in 1933. The Milwaukee Sentinel told of Katherine’s travel, along with four others from Milwaukee-Downer, to the Tri-State conference held at LaSalle, Illinois (Anonymous, 1949), and with five Milwaukee-Downer students to the field conference in central Wisconsin, where they visited the Wisconsin Batholith and Rib Mountain (Anonymous, 1953). In 1977, Katherine (Nelson, 1977) was the primary organizer of the 41st Tri-State field conference. Held in autumn, this field conference is hosted by universities and geological surveys in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois, on a rotating basis. The Tri-State plays a significant role in the education of geology students from schools across the Midwest by introducing them to geologic features in the field as well as to professional geologists besides their own professors. It also provides an important resource that geology instructors can use for planning class trips as well as a forum for professionals to discuss geology in the field (Anderson, 1980). It was in the Fuller Quarry (known more typically as the Schoonmaker or Francey Quarry) in southeastern Wisconsin during the 1937 Tri-State conference that the idea for an Association of College Geology Teachers was conceived (Anderson, 1980).
For many years, Katherine was involved in the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, including service on its membership committee (1947) and Wisconsin Science Talent Search Committee (1950). In 1950, she was the vice-president in science (Proceedings of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters); in 1952–1953, she served as the Academy’s first woman president; and in 1957 she was its secretary-treasurer (Anonymous, 1957). She continued on the Academy governing board from then until her death in 1982 (Kluessendorf, et al., 1984a).
Katherine was elected a Fellow in the Geological Society of America (Kluessendorf et al., 1984a). Founded in 1888, this Society elected 28 women as Fellows in its first 56 years of operation, and between 1947 and 1982, fewer than 100 additional women had become Fellows (Eckel, 1982). Eckel (1982) observed that “several of the women elected to Fellowship have never contributed largely to original research, nor have they had extensive bibliographies of published papers. They have thus lacked the credentials that come to most minds as absolute requirements for the honor of Fellowship”; however, “Each of them had contributed substantially to the welfare of the Society, to geology, or to both” (p. 38). We have been unable to determine the year that Katherine became a Fellow.
Katherine was also a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and, in 1982, shortly before her death, she had been nominated for president of its Earth Science Section (Kluessendorf et al., 1984b). Katherine received the Educator of the Year Award in 1982 from the Midwest Federation of Mineralogical and Geological Societies (Kluessendorf et al., 1984b). In 1963, she was named Honorary Curator at the Milwaukee Public Museum for her service to that institution (Kluessendorf et al., 1984b). She established a chapter of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society, at UWM, serving as its president for one term. She also served as campus president of Phi Kappa Phi at UWM in 1976–1977 (Kluessendorf et al., 1984b). In addition to her membership in the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, she belonged to the American Association of Stratigraphical Palynologists and the Paleontological Society (Paull and Paull, 1985).
OUTREACH AND PHILOSOPHY
Katherine is “best known for her devotion to teaching others about the Earth” (Paull and Paull, 1985). She wanted to help people understand and acquire a sense of pride in their surroundings, to appreciate the vastness of geologic time, and to feel awe about all that has gone before. To these ends, she put her effort and energy into presenting public lectures, helping geology hobbyists, giving museum tours to schoolchildren, writing popularized articles, and giving media interviews. Paull and Paull (1985) did a fine job of summing up her attitude toward outreach:
Most university professors restrict their teaching to college-level courses and the supervision of graduate students, but not Katherine. She was always nonselective in her educational endeavors and was equally available to, and comfortable with, a bus load of school children visiting the Greene Museum or congressmen contemplating the potential for the Ice Age Scientific Reserve in Wisconsin. … [She made] hundreds of informal presentations … to classes and clubs in Milwaukee area schools… Whenever a call came into her department for a display, a career talk, a demonstration, or a lecture, almost everyone else was too busy, but not Katherine. She was always the willing volunteer for public service of all kinds. Her vast knowledge about Wisconsin geology made her the preferred geological contact for reporters from area newspapers and TV stations, and she freely assisted them all without concern for the time it took. Because of all her involvements, she was “the Geologist” to citizens of southeastern Wisconsin.… To her, the Earth was a remarkable place to be understood, appreciated, and enjoyed.… She never undertook any assignment with thought of personal reward or recognition. All she ever cared about was helping an individual, a group, or an organization. Selfless people such as this are rare in our society.
Besides the thousands of students, hobbyists, scientists, and others that she influenced personally through teaching and outreach, perhaps Katherine’s most tangible and far-reaching legacy is the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve and Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin. Between 1964 and 1980, the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve and Ice Age Trail were established by Congress to protect the glacial landforms and landscapes of Wisconsin (Ice Age Trail Alliance, 2017). It was originally envisioned by Milwaukee attorney Ray Zillmer, championed through Congress by Wisconsin Rep. Henry Ruess, and promoted by Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson (no relation to Katherine). However, it was Katherine who did much of the real work on the ground, taking senators, congressmen, and National Park Service personnel on countless field trips to extoll the virtues of Wisconsin’s glacial scenery (Kluessendorf et al., 1984b). Katherine was also tapped to describe these remarkable glacial features to the public and explain the need to preserve them (Nelson, 1964).
It is no wonder that Katherine was devoted to teaching others about the Earth, when one considers her philosophy and passion for geology. In 1954, Katherine (Nelson, 1954b) revealed a philosophy that put science on the same cultural level with the arts:
Many a textbook on Elementary Geology opens with a statement relating geology to the other sciences. It seems to me that we can also find some interesting relationships with arts and letters. Perhaps I am prejudiced, but it seems to me that geology is the science which relates best to a great number of other fields. It draws on all the materials of the earth—the stuff the sciences study—the ground from which Man and arts and letters have sprung…
Might not more emphasis be placed on the cultural values to be attained in studying the sciences, too? Certainly, it seems as important to me to have an understanding and an appreciation of our environment and the landscapes about us, as to appreciate the art and music and literature that afford us recreation and enjoyment … There is one big difference in this comparison that I have been making between geology and the arts and letters, and that is the fact that Man does not create the things that call for appreciation in geology … But the earth was here long before man, and geologic processes that are at work today are like those at work in ages past. We take what is here, rather than set the rules ourselves, and as we recognize the processes and results, we can always find something to appreciate in the features of the earth … we can recognize the methodical development which traces back, step by step, revealing the story of the earth’s past… I feel strongly that there should be more emphasis in our schools on the cultural value of studying science—not just to become acquainted with the scientific method and laboratory procedure, along with the subject matter of a particular course—but to gain a sense of appreciation on par with that involved in the study of art, music and literature. Our natural surroundings, all around us, are as worthy of delicate perception and keen insight—of an appreciative study—as are the works of man. Few students have had much training in appreciation of what they may see outdoors before they enter college… And still, they are so receptive to it! … I feel that we cannot stress too much the idea that the sciences are valuable … for cultural reasons. For a full life, is it not as important to have a true appreciation of our surroundings outdoors as indoors? A well-educated person should see what he looks at as he goes by, and should derive from his surroundings a feeling of awe and appreciation when he realizes all that has gone before. (Nelson, 1954, p. 120–122)
Katherine obviously brought this philosophy to her teaching:
… it has seemed to me that the chief function of the [Milwaukee-Downer] department and the [Greene] Museum has been to try to develop an appreciation of the earth as our environment, so that girls majoring in other subjects will have some understanding of their foundation and their surroundings, of resources and needs, of processes and results. I feel that an understanding of the earth and its peoples is an essential part of a liberal arts education. (Nelson, 1954a, p. 5)
Her ability to envision the distant past and help others see and understand the changes that have taken place, as evidenced in the following (Nelson, 1954b), demonstrates why she was so popular with the media and with students of all ages:
… to appreciate the record left by former seas, millions of years ago, as layer on layer of lime or mud or sand accumulated; to realize that where Milwaukee is now, there once was a vast sea of warm, clear, salt water—a sea full of living creatures, which here and there added their shells to masses started by great colonies of corals, and built up huge reefs … to visualize a snowclad Baraboo Range as a protective barrier warding off the massive ice sheet to the north and east from southwestern Wisconsin. I hope that they can picture Devil’s Lake as the great river canyon it once was—that they can sense the tremendous earth movements involved in the upturned beds to be seen at Rock Springs. These are just a few of the appreciative points of view that can give all Wisconsin people a feeling of appreciation and pride in their state—an understanding of differences in topography, soils, land use, and economic conditions. (p. 122)
But Katherine was not naive; she was concerned about environmental degradation, and she used her public platform to express caution about the Earth’s future:
When you think of the tremendous numbers of things that have lived here before us, of so much rock still uncovered, of the enormous periods of time in these eras… We can’t even imagine… There’s a lot you can glean from fossils that you can apply to man—and what may happen to man. The bright hope is that man will change things before it’s too late. I hope it’s not too late now, but I can’t be optimistic enough to think things will go along this way forever. I give us a few thousand years, anyway. (Otto, 1970)
Katherine’s enthusiasm, knowledge, and passion helped her reach thousands of people, including countless college students who scrambled over outcrops with her trying to catch every word she had to say. While at UWM, she was the advisor for a number of geology master’s theses (UWM did not have a Ph.D. program at the time), and she encouraged five additional students, including the authors, to pursue their doctorates in paleontology.
GEOLOGY IS A GOOD FIELD FOR A YOUNG WOMAN
Apparently, female role models had little impact on Katherine’s career, although she does mention Margaret Morrey, a Vassar instructor; Anne Burgess, Rutgers Geology Museum curator and Geology Department secretary; and petroleum geologists Maria Spencer, Mary Louise Rhodes, and Lois Fillman as some role models (Nelson, 1978). Katherine mainly credits Vassar professors Thomas M. Hills and Scott Warthin with opening “her eyes to geology and love for our earth, and [making] me feel if these are geologists, this is what I want to be” (Nelson, 1978). Albert O. Hayes and Helgi Johnson, faculty in geology at Rutgers, urged her to pursue her doctorate (Nelson, 1978). And, of course, her father, Walter Greacen, encouraged her throughout her life, and he initially suggested that she study geology at Vassar. Katherine also noted that John R. Ball of Northwestern University “influenced [her] profoundly during the first five years of teaching.” He “preached the importance of research” and “opened the door to [her] employment in the oil industry in 1943” (Nelson, 1978). Katherine vouched for Ball’s expertise and integrity in the 1942–1943 Greene Museum Annual Report before leaving for Texas, hoping that, in her absence, he would be allowed to continue his work on the Silurian fossils.
In a 1970 interview, Katherine observed, “Geology is a good field for a young woman. I don’t think there’s discrimination, although you may have to work a little harder to break in. Once you do, things are equal with men” (The Milwaukee Journal, 6 Feb., 1970, part 2). In her acceptance speech for the Neil Miner Award, Katherine stated, “…professionally, I think of myself and I hope others do too—as a geologist, not as a woman geologist, anymore than I think of another as a man geologist. We are all in this together, and that is what I have appreciated all along—and there is no reason we should not rate as highly with our students as have the male professors, if we have our students’ interests at heart” (Nelson, 1978, p. 20).
In retrospect, Katherine may have escaped much gender discrimination because of the time and places in which she lived. She grew up in a non-traditional family who valued education and expected her to have a career, her father even suggesting that she pursue the male-dominated field of geology. Fortunately, she went to college decades after women like Florence Bascom had paved the way for females to attend classes without having to sit behind a screen (Schneiderman, 1997). Moreover, her undergraduate experience was at Vassar, a women’s college that nurtured their students’ future career plans. Because her father was on the faculty, she was familiar with Rutgers from the time she was a child, which may have helped her navigate the coeducational collegiate environment there. The first half of her career was spent at Milwaukee-Downer, also a women’s college, which had the atmosphere of a female enclave that valued her expertise and strengthened her confidence. At Vassar and Milwaukee-Downer (before President Johnson began hiring more male faculty), there was no competition from males.
Katherine worked in oil at a time when the industry was in desperate need of geologists because they were losing their male employees to military service in World War II. The industry was happy to hire competent women scientists, although, after the war, males were again the preferred employees.
Katherine’s passion for teaching and outreach may also have allowed her to escape some gender discrimination. During her time at Milwaukee-Downer, she was expected to teach classes and curate the museum. When she moved to UWM, the geology department was initially very small and teaching was the responsibility of everyone on the faculty. As the faculty grew, Katherine’s focus remained on university and professional service, public outreach, and teaching. Because she didn’t compete much for research facilities and funding, she was less of concern to the rest of the faculty, all of whom were male. Also, Katherine was willing and able to interact with the media in matters geologic, which kept the rest of the faculty from having to conduct bothersome interviews that were a drain on their research time. Finally, working closely together to develop the new department fostered a sense of camaraderie and mutual respect among the early geoscience faculty.
Finally, in her other professional roles, especially in the earlier years of her career, Katherine can be viewed somewhat as a “novelty”—being one of the only woman geoscientists in the Midwest, away from the oil patch, the federal geological survey, and the eastern women’s colleges.
Since her passing, the UWM Department of Geosciences (2017) established the Katherine Greacen Nelson Memorial Scholarship in her honor to provide support for summer fieldwork/research to students. Also, the Weis Earth Science Museum in Menasha, Wisconsin, established the Katherine Greacen Nelson Award, which is presented to those who have made outstanding contributions to the earth sciences in Wisconsin or Wisconsinites who have made outstanding contributions to the earth sciences in general. The Weis Museum chose to honor her because of her vast knowledge of Wisconsin geology and her commitment to sharing that knowledge with others (Weis Earth Science Museum, 2017).
By expressing passion for the Earth, living her philosophy of putting science on par with the arts, and being willing to engage people from all walks of life, Katherine impacted many thousands of people, from school children to college students to hobbyists to politicians and the general public. It is humbling to think how many others these people have influenced with what they learned from Katherine, whether they went on to teach, impart the knowledge to their families, or contact a politician about preserving our past. And even if they don’t know her name, hikers enjoying a fall trek on the Ice Age Trail continue to reap the benefits of Katherine’s commitment to the Earth.
Figures & Tables
Women and Geology: Who Are We, Where Have We Come From, and Where Are We Going?
Women have been a part of the story of geology from the beginning, but they have struggled to gain professional opportunities, equal pay, and respect as scientists for decades. Some have been dismissed, some have been forced to work without pay, and some have been denied credit. This volume highlights the progress of women in geology, including past struggles and how remarkable individuals were able to overcome them, current efforts to draw positive attention and perceptions to women in the science, and recruitment and mentorship efforts to attract and retain the next generation of women in geology. Chapters include the first American women researchers in Antarctica, a survey of Hollywood disaster movies and the casting of women as geologists, social media campaigns such as #365ScienceSelfies, and the stories of the Association for Women Geoscientists and the Earth Science Women’s Network and their work to support and mentor women in geology.