Mischievous Creatures: The Forgotten Sisters Who Transformed Early American Science

Image of Mischievous Creatures: The Forgotten Sisters Who Transformed Early American Science
Release Date: 
October 31, 2023
Basic Books
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"a surprisingly rich history. . . . McNeur clearly knows how to find out everything it's possible to discover about these women and the circles they moved in."

Catherine McNeur presents a surprisingly rich history in Mischievous Creatures. She not only describes the fascinating lives of two scientific-minded sisters who lived in the first half of the 19th century, she gives a vivid sense of the nature of scientific inquiry itself at that time. We think of science as an established subject, but it was a relatively new intellectual pursuit in the early years of this country. Science as a formal profession happened after their lifetimes.

"Universities that had previously only offered science classes as part of their medical programs had begun to hire more botanists, chemists, geologists, and zoologists, expanding their offerings and opening scientific schools. For decades, women's seminaries had a rich assortment of science classes, but as it became possible to find jobs in these fields, schools for men followed suit."

The sisters Elizabeth and Margaretta Morris were in fact fortunate to be born at a time when most science was conducted by amateurs who connected with each other at talks and through correspondence. The informal space was more welcoming to women.

"Prior to this formalization and expansion of scientific work, though, women like Margaretta Morris and Elizabeth Morris had more leeway to be on something closer to equal footing with their male peers. When it was not a profitable work, more women could compete."

They also had the luck to be born into a wealthy, established family in Philadelphia, one that encouraged their curiosity and scientific work. And they lived in a city that was the center for scientific inquiry during their childhood and young adulthood. In fact, both girls were tutored by some of the leading American scientists of the time.

Margaretta wrote, "I had great advantages in the society of Say, Dr. Godman, Lesueur, and Nuttall, who all made a pet of me, and encouraged me onwards."

McNeur is acutely aware of the sisters' privilege while still being on the fringes of the scientific world as women. She is careful to establish historical context throughout these pages, including other early American women of science and explaining carefully how these women have mostly disappeared from the historical record.

"There were also lesser-known women who were working in the sciences at the same time as the Morris sisters and whose contributions only faintly survive. Women like Isabella Batchelder James (1819–1901), a friend of Elizabeth's who researched the physiological source of plant odors."

This is only one example among many, but shows the depth and breadth of McNeur's painstaking research. Most of the book, however, closely follows Elizabeth and Margaretta as they explored the natural world. Elizabeth focused on plants, botany, developing friendships with renowned botantists, such Asa Gray, the preeminent scientist in the field at the time. Margaretta was obsessed with insects, and her thorough studies of some of the pests attacking farmers' crops were cited by other scientists as crucial for understanding how to combat them. In fact, Margaretta's publications were so important, she ultimately was one of only two women accepted into the storied ranks of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The other was Maria Mitchell, the first American to discover a comet, and one of the few early women scientists whose name is still known.

McNeur traces Margaretta's work from her first questioning about the behavior of wheat flies to her response to critiques once her theories were published. She documents assiduously how male scientists both supported and rebuked her and how Margaretta stood her ground. When one scientist criticized her pivotal paper on the wheat fly with its essential advice for how farmers could save their crops, she responded:

"If Dr. Fitch will prove that flies I so carefully watched for so many years, whose larva feeds in the center of the straw, as seen by hundreds in his neighborhood, is 'the fly he suspects it to be,' I will acknowledge my error as frankly as I now maintain my difference of opinion."

Quotes like these—and the book is full of them—show expert sleuthing indeed. McNeur clearly knows how to find out everything it's possible to discover about these women and the circles they moved in.

Elizabeth was the less combative sister, content to publish most of her thinking anonymously and happy to be able to develop rich networks of scientific correspondence. Through her letters, the plant samples and drawings she sent and received, Elizabeth was connected to important botanists and felt herself truly part of their world.

One expert, William Darlington, introduced her to Asa Gray with high praise:

"'I have recently made the acquaintance of a Lady Botanist,' he wrote. 'Her name is Miss Elizabeth C. Morris . . . and to a zeal & energy of intellect quiet unusual in her Sex, adds more extensive knowledge of Plants than any Female I have ever met with.' . . . Asa was enthusiastic. 'I shall be glad to have so excellent a correspondent as Miss Morris."

And so was born a long and mutually enriching friendship. Asa relied on Elizabeth's comments on the botanical textbook he wrote, valuing her opinion as highly as any man's.

Both sisters, then, ended up recognized by their male peers. Both had successful careers as amateur scientists, yet somehow neither of them are now well known. McNeur examines why this is so:

"The erasure of the Morris sisters did not happen all at once. The absence of a memorial or obituary for Margaretta certainly contributed, but the omissions occurred unevenly and some even began during their lifetimes. Many were not intentional, let alone malicious, but they gradually accumulated until the sisters' stories faded from view."

The lack of citation by other scientists, the way many of the agricultural journals both sisters wrote for featured mostly anonymous work, and in Elizabeth's case, the frequent use of pen names, made this gradual disappearance almost inevitable. McNeur has repaired this invisibility, bringing to life these sisters and their many achievements, both big and little. More than this, she offers a tapestry of how science was done in America in the first part of the 19th century. This book is as much a history of natural science as it is the biography of two unique early practitioners.