Florence Bascom

Geologist Florence Bascom (1862-1945) was the first woman to receive a PhD from Johns Hopkins University, but she had to attend classes behind a screen (so as not to distract her male classmates) to earn that distinction. Through her work in petrology (the study of rocks) and her strong mentorship skills, she established recognition and space in the field for herself and the generation of female geologists she trained.

Florence was born in Williamstown, Massachusetts to active women’s rights proponents, who encouraged her learning. She studied geology at the University of Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins (earning her PhD in 1893) and went on to found a Department of Geology at Bryn Mawr College in 1901. Here she established a rigorous and ultimately extremely well-respected geology program that was responsible for training many other trailblazing female geologists of the 20th century.

Her research involved using cutting-edge technology to look at rocks under a microscope, determine their composition, and use that knowledge to piece together how mountains and other geological formations formed. For example, in her PhD work, she showed that rocks from the Appalachian Mountains previously thought to be from debris were actually formed from lava, revolutionizing the way scientists thought about how those mountains came to be.

In 1896, she became the first woman hired by the US Geological Survey (USGS) and in 1901 she presented a paper at the Geological Survey of Washington (the first woman to do so). She served as Associate Editor of the journal The American Geologist (1896-1905) and Vice President of the Geological Society of America (1930) (their first female officer). In 1906 American Men of Science named her in their “top 100 American geologists” list (and many of her students made the list in the ensuing years).


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