Sons & Daughters of the Nature Study Movement

Over the past few weeks, a number of tweets on Twitter have related to the topic of women in science—with posts about equality, so-called “science kits for girls,” and fighting stereotypes. While reading a biography on Rachel Carson, a daughter of the “Nature-Study Movement,” I became curious about this educational movement that drew young women to science during the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  In Carson’s case, it was her mother, Maria, who shared an interest in natural history with her daughter, Rachel, from a very young age. It is clear from Rachel’s writings that her mother was influenced by the nature-study movement. How did this movement come about? What engendered it? For those of us studying and working in the natural sciences, I wondered:  Are we daughters—and sons—of the nature-study movement?

Cornell University became one home to the nature-study movement.  The university at one time received state funds to teach ‘nature-study’ in rural New York schools.  During the depression of 1893, the state of New York established a Committee for the Promotion of Agriculture. It grabbed onto the ideas of Liberty Hyde Bailey, a Cornell professor, “who believed that children should grow up appreciating nature.”  He wrote some of the first leaflets on “nature-study,” promoting new classes and a whole program at Cornell during the summer of 1897. Bailey founded the American Nature Study Society, the oldest environmental organization in the U.S., in 1908. But Bailey did not act alone—he hired Anna Botsford Comstock, who ran the program in New York.

Other writers and naturalists such as Gene Stratton Porter, Louis Agassiz and Wilbur S. Jackman were early members and founders of the nature-study movement.  ‘“Nature-study” attempted to reconcile scientific investigation with spiritual, personal experiences gained from interaction with the natural world.” (Armitage, 2009)  Naturalist Louis Agassiz coined the phrase “study nature, not books,” which meant that the emphasis was placed on learning from tangible things outside of the classroom.

Anna Comstock explored the idea extensively in her 1930 book, Handbook of Nature Study: “Nature Study is for the comprehension of the Individual life of the bird, insect or plant that is nearest at hand.” Comstock described “nature-study” as both an aesthetic and as a discipline. She writes, “But it should not be thought that nature-study is not a science. The promising science of ecology is merely formalized nature-study; indeed it might be said that nature-study is natural science from an ecological rather than anatomical view.” To critics of “nature-study,” especially male scientists, some of whom considered ‘nature-study’ to be romantic or sentimental, Comstock argued that nature-study was more than a science—that it was “not merely a study of life, but the experience of life.” Her book spelled out a philosophy of life.  Many of those who joined the nature-study movement shared this philosophy.

The nature-study movement inspired a change in school curricula for children in many of areas of the country, according to Nature, not books: scientists and the origins of the nature-study movement in the 1890s by Sally G. Kohlstedt (2005), and because of this shift, it allowed young women to study and prepare for scientific vocations, and more importantly, to find jobs. Rachel Carson, and other female scientists, benefited from this major shift in thinking about the way science was taught—in both the lab and field.  Kohlstedt’s more recent book,Teaching Children Science: Hands-On Nature Study in North America, 1890–1930, (University of Chicago Press, 2010) examines this phenomenon more closely. For example, in the state of Wisconsin, from 1915-1920, the number of female biology teachers increased by 50-67%. (Tolley, 2003) Moreover, the movement influenced male and female environmental leaders alike, including Aldo Leopold. For more information, look for The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of America’s Conservation Ethic by Kevin C. Armitage (2009).

For related blogs on the Nature-Study Movement, visit:

William Temple Hornaday and the Progressive Era Nature Study Movement
http://gregshistoryblog.blogspot.com/2011/11/william-temple-hornaday-and-progressive.html?showComment=1323277806846#c5029543604266133864

Darwin, Schoenberg, and Sibley: A New Dawn for Nature Study?
http://blog.aba.org/2011/12/darwin-schoenberg-and-sibley-a-new-dawn-for-birding.html

Anna Comstock: http://drkv.wordpress.com/2011/09/10/anna-comstock/

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