The Unsung Heroines of the California Academy of Sciences

From famed botanists to the “First Lady of Malacology,” meet some of the women who fought the earliest battles for their inclusion at the Academy.
March 29, 2024
Pearl Sonoda holds up a specimen suspended in a jar in the fish collections at the Academy, in a black and white vintage photograph.
Pearl Sonoda, senior curatorial assistant of ichthyology, maintained the Academy's rich collection of fishes between 1967-1995. © California Academy of Sciences

In August 1853, a group of men at the California Academy of Sciences gathered to pass a motion allowing for women’s involvement in Academy work: “We highly approve of the aid of females in every department of natural science, and [...] we earnestly invite their cooperation,” the resolution read.

This motion, passed four months after the founding of the Academy, was a curiously progressive allowance at a time when men overwhelmingly dominated scientific fields and few research organizations allowed for, let alone paid, female staff. Yet women’s integration into the Academy was by no means an easy or quick process: An early Academy publication noted that it took “a number of years” for women to accept “the invitation thus so gallantly held out to them.”

Indeed, it took 25 years for women to become resident members of the Academy—affiliated scientists nominated and elected by leadership. The Academy appointed its first female curator in 1883, but the distribution of male and female curators in the Academy’s 171-year history overwhelmingly skews male.

In honor of Women’s History Month, learn the “Untold Stories” of pioneering women in the Academy’s history. These stories were compiled by Academy Library staff and Careers in Science high school interns, who dug through archival materials to better understand the people who built the Academy into the scientific organization it is today.

Current Academy staff share the stories of three famed female curators, explaining how their early contributions paved the way for underrepresented scientists today. 
First-ever female curator of botany

M. Katharine Brandegee (1844-1920)


Katharine Brandegee stares outward in a black dress and ruffled collar in a vintage-looking black and white image.
Brandegee was a prominent voice in science communication and helped found an academic journal. © California Academy of Sciences

Initially trained as a medical doctor, Katharine Brandegee, MD, was unable to establish a practice due to sexism from potential patients. This led Brandegee to the California Academy of Sciences, where she developed her passion for botany and eventually rose to the rank of curator—the first woman at the time to hold that position in a scientific museum and at the Academy.

Read Katharine Brandegee’s full untold story.

A specimen superhero

Alice Eastwood (1859-1953)

Alice Eastwood inspects a plant stem using a pocket magnifier necklace, wearing a black dress in a black and white vintage image.
After moving to San Francisco, Eastwood became a champion for local ecosystems and redwood conservation. © California Academy of Sciences

One of the Academy’s first female curators of botany, Alice Eastwood is well known for her storied career describing hundreds of plant species. She was a self-taught botanist who dramatically expanded the Academy's collections.

Eastwood became a legend among Academy curators after she broke modern-day OSHA regulations in a daring bid to save dozens of Academy specimens from the 1906 earthquake.

See how Dr. Sarah Jacobs, Curator of Botany describes Eastwood’s legacy.

Dr. Black Widow

Harriet Exline Frizzell (1909-1968)

Oil painted portrait of Harriet Frizzell in a blue shirt with a green neck scarf and horn-rimmed glasses, staring seriously leftward.
In her will, Frizzell stipulated that this portrait had to be a permanent fixture in the office of the Academy's arachnology curator. © California Academy of Sciences

An avid arachnologist, Harriet Frizzell, PhD, discovered roughly 500 new species of spiders in her lifetime, publishing extensively on their behavior and the diet of black widow spiders. She married another scientist and worked for the Academy as an independent researcher who operated out of her Missouri home.

Frizzell was the first woman in the United States to obtain a doctorate in arachnology, but never held a fully paid position in arachnology for her entire life. Her scientific legacy is often overshadowed by her role as a housewife and homemaker. 

Read Harriet Frizzell’s full untold story.

"First Lady of Malacology"

A. Myra Keen (1905-1986)

Myra Keen holds up two conch shells as she sits behind a larger clam shell in a black and white vintage photograph.
Keen became the first woman to teach geology at Stanford University, and one of only three female science professors at the university in the 1960s. © California Academy of Sciences

Mollusk and shell specialist Myra Keen, PhD, first developed her passion for invertebrate paleontology as a volunteer researcher at Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, California. Keen ascended to the rank of full professor of geology at Stanford University in 1965, but was not fully compensated for much of her career as a direct result of the sexism women faced in academia. 

Keen’s experiences spurred her to speak out against a variety of topics including fair pay, unfair beauty standards, the protection of marine ecosystems, and the U.S. government’s historic and ongoing harms against Indigenous people. Keen was so beloved as a professor and researcher that she curated an entire exhibit based on correspondences she had with fans and people who loved shells. 

Read Myra Keen’s full untold story.

A botanist and activist

Elizabeth McClintock (1912-2004)

Elizabeth McClintock sits at a desk behind a flower arrangement with pinecones, in a black and white vintage image.
McClintock helped expand the Academy's botany collection and studied the trees of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. © California Academy of Sciences

Elizabeth McClintock, PhD, served as the Academy’s curator of botany from 1949 to 1977, specializing in ornamental plants such as hydrangeas, manzanitas, and sunflowers. Though McClintock was the first botany curator at the Academy to hold a PhD, her contributions were woefully undervalued by Academy staff, who wrote off her research, treated her like a secretary, and severely underpaid her.

McClintock was nevertheless passionate about environmental activism, protesting against the development of the Golden Gate Panhandle freeway and other new construction that threatened California's fragile ecological balance.

Read Elizabeth McClintock’s full untold story.

A formerly incarcerated Japanese ichthyologist

Pearl M. Sonoda (1918-2015)

Pearl Sonoda stands atop a ladder in the fish collections aisles, holding a jar full of speccimens and wearing a white lab coat. Her colleague Tomio Iwamoto stands on the ground beneath her.
Sonoda facilitated loans and visits to the Academy's ichthyology collections alongside colleagues such as Curator Emeritus of Ichthyology Tomio Iwamoto, PhD. © California Academy of Sciences

Before embarking on a career working for various natural history museums, Pearl Sonoda was one of thousands of Japanese Americans forced into incarceration camps during World War II. Sonoda’s interests in biology eventually became the cause for her release in 1943, when she joined Chicago’s Field Museum. Sonoda later came to the Academy in 1967 and served as senior curatorial assistant in the ichthyology department, managing thousands of fish specimens.

When male researchers reached out to inquire about Academy collections, they often addressed letters with “Dear Sirs” or “Dear Gentlemen.” Sonoda always responded by emphasizing the “Miss” title in front of her name. Sonoda’s colleagues in the ichthyology department remember her as both the “sweetest lady” and a “real strong person” who pushed boundaries in her nearly thirty years of Academy service.

Read Pearl Sonoda’s full untold story.

Academy women today

Today, the Academy looks like a very different place than when it was founded in 1853, with far more women among the ranks of curators, collections managers, and research staff. More work still needs to be done to truly strive for gender inclusion and equity in science, particularly for women from other marginalized backgrounds, including race, socioeconomic status, and sexuality.

Yet dozens of scientists of color and LGBTQIA+ researchers are driving crucial changes in the field, carrying forward the efforts of the early women in the Academy. Their work is spotlighted at exhibits such as New Science: The Academy Exhibit, and in Seeing It All, a new wildlife photography book featuring the work of 11 visionary female photographers and their work in rarely seen locations around the world.

Learn more about the Untold Stories project, as well as the staff and high school interns who made it possible.

As part of the Careers in Science program, a group of high school interns conducted deep archival research to uncover the stories of scientists whose contributions and accomplishments are rarely celebrated in history.

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