women farmers who changed the world | Master Edition



March is Women’s History Month. Many people ignore the women who have contributed to the success of agriculture over the years. The contributions of the women I will feature in this column went far beyond their place in time and, indeed, influenced agricultural innovations for years to come.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1614-1717)

Yes, she lived to be 103.

Merian was a German entomologist before there was such a thing. As a young girl, she was fascinated by insects and began to sketch observations made on their movements and their life cycle.

In 1679, she published a two-volume book on caterpillar metamorphosis titled “The Marvelous Transformation of Caterpillars”.

Many of his illustrations were used to show the cycle of life as an ongoing process. She was also passionate about demonstrating the connections between insects and plants in their habitats.

At the age of 52, she emigrated to Suriname and wrote what was to be considered her greatest work – “The Metamorphosis of Suriname Insects”.

Merian’s unique ability to blend art and science opened doors for future scientists and naturalists.

Harriet Williams Russell Strong (1844-1926)

Strong was an American water conservationist, but she is known for much more than that. She was a mother, musician, activist, agro-industrialist and inventor.

Because formal higher education for women was limited in her early years, Strong studied with private tutors and at Mary Atkins Young Ladies Seminary (now Mills College).

Widowed in 1883, she found herself with an unprofitable 220-acre farm and four daughters to raise. Her attempts at irrigation led to failed harvests of wheat, rye, and barley, prompting her to experiment to find what crops could be grown successfully on her land.

There it is ! Specialty crops, including 150 acres of walnuts, were successfully grown through his research and the design of an efficient irrigation system.

Within five years, she was the nation’s top nut producer, with profits exceeding $1 million. Strong’s designs became the model for the construction of the Hoover Dam, and his irrigation systems were adopted by many farmers.

Mary Engle Pennington (1872-1952)

Pennington’s outstanding work led to her appointment as the first female head of the Food and Drug Administration’s laboratory division in 1906.

Pennington was, like others mentioned in this column, hampered by the lack of formal education for women. She studied biology and chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, but as a woman she received a certificate instead of a degree. Despite the obstacles, she was able to obtain a doctorate. from Penn at the age of 22.

She had difficulty finding a job in the Philadelphia area, so she set up her own clinical laboratory where she conducted studies on bacteria. In 1905 she joined the USDA Bureau of Chemistry, now known as the FDA.

Pennington’s job at the FDA was to develop educational materials to teach farmers how to safely handle raw milk.

As noted, she became head of the FDA’s laboratory division. In 1919, Pennington decided she needed more challenge and decided to leave public service, starting her own consulting firm where she was instrumental in developing national standards for storage and l shipment of perishable foods. His work has revolutionized the country’s food supply and distribution system.

Alice Evans (1881-1975)

Evans made a significant contribution to the dairy industry through her research into raw milk diseases, earning her the nickname “The Pioneer of Safe Milk”.

As with other women, education was not readily available to her, but her perseverance led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology from Cornell University and a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin.

His research focused on the study of two specific strains of bacteria present in raw milk, related to each other and capable of being transferred from animals to humans.

Her work was not well received by academics or farmers, who accused her of “conspiring” with the companies that made pasteurization equipment. Due to his work, however, a new genus of bacteria – brucellosis – was named, which eventually led to the mandatory pasteurization of milk.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

Carson studied English and biology at the Pennsylvania College of Women (now Chatham University), and later earned a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins.

She then worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, abandoning her dream of earning a doctorate. to support his mother and two nieces. To earn extra money, she also worked as a freelance writer, mainly covering conservation.

Interestingly, Carson never really pursued his work as a practicing scientist, but instead worked as an editor and creator of scientific publications. His ability to present research findings in easy-to-understand prose led to numerous articles, and eventually books. His book “The Sea Around Us” was a bestseller.

Carson was concerned about the use of pesticides in American agriculture, writing perhaps her most famous book, “Silent Spring,” in 1962.

This work challenged agriculture and government to investigate pesticides, especially DDT, which she said were being used irresponsibly.

She is said to have influenced, among other things, the creation of Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

No doubt some of you will disagree with Carson’s advocacy and activities, but I think we can all agree that she and the other women in this column have influenced much of what we do today in the dairy industry and the broader realm of agriculture. .

The Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board is always available to answer questions and concerns. I can be reached at 717-210-8244 or by email at [email protected]



Grover Z. Barnes