It’s quite difficult to name more than a handful of female scientists, and I’m always on the lookout for some names that I’ve not come across before. A short while ago I was given a book, “Women in Science – 50 fearless pioneers who changed the world” and one in particular has caught my eye.

She was born in 1869 in Illinois as Mary Agnes Meara, the daughter of Irish immigrants, and initially worked as a proofreader and typesetter on local newspapers. She married William Chase aged 19, and was soon widowed.

Agnes Chase continued to work nights at the newspapers and by day she attended botany classes at the University of Chicago. She began illustrating plants and undertook a personal study of the plant life in Northern Illinois. Her drawings brought her to the attention of the curator of botany at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where she became an illustrator for the museum publications.

In 1903 she moved to Washington and became an illustrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She then became a scientific assistant to Albert Spear Hitchcock, the USDA’s Principal Scientist. Following his death in 1935, she became his successor.

Her area of expertise was grasses, and she published both scientific papers and books. She officially retired in 1939 when she was 70 years old, but continued working. In 1940, she travelled to Venezuela, surveying grassland, and advised the Venezuelan government to establish their own botanical program.

Agnes Chase wasn’t content with being a pioneering scientist though. She was active in several political causes, including The National Women’s Party and The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She was arrested twice, and jailed too, for ‘agitating the cause of women’s suffrage’, allegedly for burning copies of Presidential speeches in front of the White House, demanding the right to vote for women.

She died in 1963, having been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Illinois at the age of 89. She sounds like quite a girl, and I think that I will place her on my theoretical list of dinner guests I would like to sit next to. I certainly take my proverbial hat off to her.


Women In Science. Rachel Ignotofsky. Wren and Rook. 2017