Excerpt from Chapter 4: Volcanic Beginnings
One evening in early June, Dr. Rusterholtz took me, my brother Jonny, and some of our classmates on a supper hike to the bare top of a small Adirondack mountain overlooking Lake Champlain. Licking lollipops for dessert, we lay on our backs gazing up at the darkening sky, each of us hoping to be the first to spot a star. Jonny yelled, “I see one! I see one! Over there, just over that mountain with the big rock slide!” Then we all saw a bright pinpoint of light in the salmon-pink hue of sunset. Gradually more and more stars appeared, until a great white streak of them glowed high overhead.
Dr. Rusterholtz talked about the science of the night sky and how astronomers know that the brightest steadiest lights come from planets like our earth, revolving about the sun, reflecting its light. The fainter twinkling lights are other suns far away, and the massive streak of lights are the nearest stars of our own galaxy, just one of billions in the universe.
“How did those scientists find that out?” I asked. “Where did this universe come from anyway? Is it changing all the time? Will our sun last forever?”
“We don’t know all those answers yet,” our teacher said, “but astronomers have found a lot of clues that predict our sun will burn up and burn out billions of years from now. Beyond that, new discoveries are made every day, and a lot more will be known by the time you kids are grown. Maybe even one of you will find out something new about the universe some day.” Ah, science can be a journey of discovery!
Jonny and I got so inspired I announced at the family dinner table the next day, “When we grow up we
want to be scientists
!” Mom responded, “That’s nice dear; Jonathan can be a doctor and you can be a nurse.”
“But, Mom, I don’t want to be a nurse. A nurse is not
This was the first of many obstacles I would have to overcome in my lifelong ambition to become a scientist—maybe not an astronomer or geologist, but some kind of discoverer. Mom just did not understand. How could she? In her world, scientists were medical practitioners, a hierarchy of men supported by women. Are women not allowed to be in charge? There were no obvious role models.
My mom’s mother had died leaving five children when Mom was only seven.
As the only two girls in the family, she and her sister had to take on some household chores, including the Saturday morning ritual of baking a week’s worth of bread. She told of her two older brothers, coming in from their chores in the field, snatching the loaves, and tossing them back and forth as footballs. The boys giggled; the girls cried.
When I complained about my own brothers’ teasing, Mom had the wisdom to advise: “They just do that to get your goat. Either tease them back or don’t pay any attention at all.” Well I had five older brothers, not just two, and they all seemed to rule the roost.
When a very little girl, I warned them
, “You just wait ’til I get to be a boy!”
Even so, I always knew they loved me, and I loved them. I just wanted to have the advantages they had.
As my mom approached her teenage years without a mother of her own, she had scant knowledge of the physiological changes an adolescent experiences. Neither her father nor local aunts helped in any manner. It was thought improper to speak of such matters in that late Victorian age.
When I became a teenager, Mom gave me a book about birds and bees. As we segued uncomfortably to the human condition, she imparted the essential, timely knowledge she herself had never received.
My mom came a long way from most women of the preceding generation. Besides fulfilling the usual role of wife and mother, she had certified at the local teachers’ college as an elementary school teacher, taught on Long Island for several years, and continuously worked toward civic improvements. She did not, however, go so far as to march with suffragettes; when old enough to feel outraged at the very idea of her being denied the right to vote, I asked why she
didn’t march. She answered, “Ben (her husband and my father) wouldn’t have liked it.” I hardly understood how this forceful woman could have been so acquiescent.
Nevertheless, Mom gave strong voice to political thoughts, and once given the right to vote, she voted every time. Unlike most women then, she fought for causes: education, libraries, the rebuilding of our burned-out church. While fulfilling the traditional role of woman in her time, she had taken a step beyond the women of her mother’s time. I admired her convictions. She expressed them in the only way acceptable for a female of the early 20th century.
While my folks wanted wifehood for me, they also urged me on to college. I even got a scholarship for Syracuse University.
But disenchantment marked my first years there where science then was taught as a body of facts to be absorbed and regurgitated in written tests. I had loved the physics taught by Mr. Benton in high school. He conveyed the logic of a concept by taking time to develop and illustrate the relevant principles—the way a fulcrum works, for example, as the pivoting point of a lever—a fascinating exercise that made his stale jokes tolerable throughout the entire year. In college, however, I had to memorize formulae with no time allowed for thoughtful derivation. For botany we learned the Latin names of trees, shrubs, and plants without understanding relationships between form and function. Microbiology dealt a similar litany of facts. I rebelled so strongly I began to consider switching to either another field or another university.
Ole did the research and identified the University of Chicago as the opposite of Syracuse, surely more in tune with our values. Under the leadership of Robert Maynard Hutchins and his colleague Mortimer Adler, the U. of C., with its Great Books Program of undergraduate studies, was famed as a citadel of scholarly pursuit. Lacking the rah-rah spirit of major varsity sports, it supported not even a football team, its athletic stadium having been usurped by the U. S. government to serve as a site for accomplishing the first chain reaction leading to development of the atomic bomb.
The idea of switching universities attracted Conant and Allie, but they simply could not commit to such radical change. Ole and I made up our minds: If our parents wouldn’t sanction the transfer, or Chicago wouldn’t accept our credentials, we’d join the Women’s Army Corps (WACs)—so there!
We never had to join the WACs. Our parents agreed to the transfer without a whimper; the University of Chicago took us without loss of credits. After three years of growing disenchantment, I had chosen to change my place of learning but stay with my first love: science.
Except for Conant and Allie, the majority of sisters were doubtless relieved to see Ole and me leave, taking our phonograph and loudly played records of Bach, Beethoven, and Bartok with us. They doubtless could not understand how we could abandon the comfort of a pleasant sorority home for the big bad city of Chicago, just for academic reasons.
It was a move of significant consequence.
Excerpted from A Woman of Science by Cardy Raper, Ph.D.; Foreword by Remeline Damasco, M.D.. Copyright © 2013 by Cardy Raper, Ph.D.; Foreword by Remeline Damasco, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of Hatherleigh Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.