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Women in Soil Science - 1895 to Present

By Maxine J. Levin, Soil Scientist
Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS-USDA), Washington DC
Published on the AWSS Web site, January 2001


The following is a brief overview on the history of women's contributions to the field of soil science. Since almost nothing has been written on the topic, my comments are based on recent oral histories and research at the National Archives and National Agricultural Library in Washington, D.C. Most of the information is anecdotal and from the interviewees' own experiences. I have tried to bring this information together within a historical framework. I have not included the Russian or Eastern European women soil scientists in this study, though their contributions are extensive and significant to the general study of soil science.


The Pioneers (1895-1965)
1895   Miss Janette Steuart and Miss Sorena Haygood maintained laboratory and field records in Washington, D.C. for the Soils Division of what was then the U.S. Weather Bureau of USDA.
June 1901   Miss Julia Pearce was appointed to one of the first USDA Soil Survey field parties (Hanford, CA) as an assistant in the Soil Survey (Macy Lapham, Crisscross Trails). She copied maps. A short time later, she was transferred to Washington to work in the physical laboratory.
1920's   Mary Baldwin, the wife of soil inspector Mark Baldwin (USDA Soil Survey, 1912-1944) described mapping with her husband in northern Wisconsin. She and her husband mapped during the summer months, camping and using a small boat to go from island to island.
Mid 1930's   Charlotte Whitford (Coulton) graduated with a M.S. in botany from Ohio State University before taking a job as secretary for a Soil Conservation Service (SCS) field soils staff in Zanesville, OH. She was recruited to work as an assistant soil technologist in Washington, D.C. on a series of soil erosion reports. She later worked as an editor on soil surveys and eventually became head of the publications staff of the SCS.
1937   Miss Lois Olson and Dr. Arthur Hall spoke on studies in erosion history as part of a series of research seminars to the Soil Conservation Service. Some of today's thinking on interpretations of the soil survey and field practices to control erosion is attributed to this series of lectures between 1936-37. Miss Olson, a geographer by training, was the head of the Erosion History section of the Soil Conservation Service.
1939   Ester Parsons Perry was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in soil science in the United States. She received her Ph.D. in soil science from the University of California, Berkeley. Her thesis was titled, Profile studies of the more extensive primary soils derived from granitic rocks in California (9). From reading her thesis, Professor Gary Sposito of the University of California, Berkeley, thinks that she was one of the first students to use x-ray defraction to look at the clay mineralogy structure in soils. From 1939 on to 1965 when she retired, she worked in and ran the soil survey lab, University of California at Berkeley.
1941   Dorothy Nickerson was a color technologist for USDA from the late 1920's through the 1940's. Nickerson was instrumental in developing the soil color standards for soil survey. She worked with T.D. Rice, Kenneth Kelly, and Albert H. Munsell to adapt the Munsell color chart system for describing soil color in the lab and the field. After extensive colorimetric testing by Nickerson in the lab and by soil scientists in the field, the Munsell color charts and a new set of color names were adopted by the American soil survey in 1949.
1946   Officially, the first woman soil scientist in the field for the Soil Conservation Service (SCS)-USDA was Mary C. Baltz (Tyler). Mary Baltz graduated from Cornell University and joined the soil survey as a "junior soil surveyor" in Madison and Oneida Counties, NY. W.W.II labor shortages provided an opening for her to work in a job that, up to that time, appeared to be reserved for men (4). Mary Baltz worked for the SCS until about 1965.

Mary West is Executive Committee Chair. Guest editors are Susan Samson, Jackie Pashnik, and Donna Duffy. Committees are organized: Executive, Newsletter, Mentoring, Directory, Meetings, Current Issues, Membership, Other Societies. AWSS discrimination/sexual harassment survey is conducted. AWSS support group is formed. AWSS meets at ASA meeting in Minneapolis, MN. The first AWSS meeting with SWCS takes place in Baltimore, MD. Membership is 170.


In the Classroom, In the Field and In the Lab (1965-1990's)
1950-60's   Very few women received soil science degrees, taught, conducted research, or worked in the field. While the 1960's career counseling documents focused on helping women plan for work and marriage, the documents in the 1970's began to discuss ways to channel women into nontraditional careers. Encouraging young women to enter nontraditional occupations continued as a theme into the 1980's.
1964   Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited sex discrimination in federal employment.
1965-1975   Women who received a Soil Science Ph.D. in the late 1950s and early 1960's began teaching soil science in US Universities: Dr. Nellie Stark, Dr. Eva Esterman, and Dr. Jane I. Forsyth.
1978   The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 required that the federal work force reflect the nation's diversity.
Mid to late 1970's   Women were more commonly hired to work for the SCS as field soil scientists.
1980   The Women in Science and Technology Equal Opportunity Act in 1980 opened up more opportunities for women to receive support in the university setting.
Early 1980's   The Association of Women Soil Scientists (AWSS) was started by a group of women soil scientists in the US Forest Service.
1985   Dr. Elizabeth L. Klepper was the first woman ever to receive the prestigious Fellow Award from Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). Her research has concentrated on root growth and function under field conditions and plant-soil water relations. She is a recipient of other Fellow awards from all three agronomic research societies: American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Society of America (CSA), and Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). Other female SSSA Fellows that have provided outstanding contributions to soil science are Mary Beth Kirkham (1987), Mary K. Firestone (1995), and Jean L. Steiner (1996).

Carol Wettstein was the first woman state soil scientist with the Soil Conservation Service (NRCS)-USDA (SCS Maryland 1988-89) and later was state soil scientist in Colorado (1990-95). Carole Jett was state soil scientist in California in 1991, and Carol Franks was a state soil scientist in Arizona in 1994.


The "Yes" Generation (1990 and on)

With the mid 1980's through 1990's there has been a substantial increase in women researchers and associate professors in our US universities in the soil science field. As an example, at last count there are 3 women pedology professors in the US: Dr. Mary Collins, Dr. Janice Boettinger, and Dr. Christine Evans. Women researchers and associate professors in all aspects of soil sciences are active throughout our university system and research agencies. My written paper documents many of these women's recent achievements. Many women have presented a paper on their career highlights in a seminar at the Soil and Water Conservation Society meeting in 1999, and many other women are consist in their performance and participation in SSSA meetings.

According to the Fall 1996 Enrollment for Agriculture, Renewable Natural Resources and Forestry Report by FAEIS, between 1987 and 1996, soil science, education, communication and social science experienced the largest growth in percent female participation. Soil Sciences was 16.2% female in 1987 and 32% female in 1996. General enrollment of students (B.S., M.S. and Ph.D.'s) in the soil sciences has held relatively steady between 1987 and 1996, fluctuating between 1,200 and 1,500 students. In 1996 there were 228 female B.S. graduates in soil science, almost double from 10 years before. Doctoral and Masters candidates in the soil sciences in 1996 are also about one-third female, once again double from 10 years prior (34).


More AWSS History

AWSS History Timeline
Margie Faber, AWSS Historian, gives a concise chronology of AWSS from 1981-2000.

History and Genesis of AWSS
At the first and second AWSS meetings in 1991 and 1992,, founder Barb Leuelling talks about the beginnings of AWSS,
her perspective on the present, and her hope for the future.