The First Lady of Grasses
April 29, 1869
Today is the birthday of the petite, fearless, and indefatigable botanist Agnes Chase.
Agnes was an agrostologist—a studier of grass.
A self-taught botanist, Agnes's first position was as an illustrator at the USDA’s Bureau of Plant Industry in Washington, D.C. In this position, Agnes worked as an assistant to the botanist Albert Spear Hitchcock.
When Hitchcock applied for expedition funding for himself and Agnes, his superiors only approved funds for Hitchcock. The higher-ups felt the job belonged to "real research men."
Undeterred, Agnes raised her own funding to go on the expeditions. Alice arranged for free or low-fee accommodations with host families by cleverly partnering with missionaries in Latin America.
Agnes shrewdly observed,
“The missionaries travel everywhere, and like botanists do it on as little money as possible.
They gave me information that saved me much time and trouble.”
Agnes proved that women could botanize - even in harsh environments - as well as their male counterparts. During a climb of one of the highest Mountains in Brazil, Agnes reportedly returned to camp with a "skirt filled with plant specimens."
One of Agnes's major works, the First Book of Grasses, was translated into Spanish and Portuguese. Agnes's masterpiece taught generations of Latin American botanists who recognized Agnes's contributions long before their American counterparts.
When Hitchcock retired, Agnes was his backfill.
And when Agnes reached retirement age, she ignored the rite of passage altogether and refused to be put out to pasture. Agnes kept going to work - six days a week - overseeing the largest collection of grasses in the world in her office under the red towers at her beloved Smithsonian Institution.
When Agnes turned 89, she became the eighth person to become an honorary fellow of the Smithsonian.
A reporter covering the event said,
"Dr. Chase looked impatient, as if she were muttering to herself,
'This may be well and good, but it isn't getting any grass classified, Sonny.'"
While researching Agnes Chase, I came across this little article in The St. Louis Star and Times.
Agnes gave one of her books on the grass a biblical title, The Meek That Inherit the Earth.
The article pointed out that,
"Mrs. Chase began her study of grass by reading about it in the Bible.
In the very first chapter of Genesis, ...the first living thing the Creator made was grass...
In order to understand grass one needs an outlook as broad as all creation,
for grass is fundamental to life,
from Abraham, the herdsman,
to the Western cattleman;
from drought in Egypt to the dust bowl of Colorado;
from corn, a grass given to Hiawatha because in time of famine he prayed not for renown but for the good of his people,
to the tall corn of Iowa."
And Agnes said,
"Grass is what holds the, earth together.
Grass made it possible for the human race to abandon his cave life and follow herds.
Civilization was based on grass, everywhere in the world."