A Pioneer in Geology Fieldwork and Education

Bryn Mawr's geology students still benefit from the vision of Florence Bascom, 130 years later.

Left to Right: Geology students' recreated photo (left) of Florence Bascom with students in the Grand Canyon, 1906 (right).
Left: Geology students recreated the fieldwork photo last fall. Right: Florence Bascom with students in the Grand Canyon, 1906.

Florence Bascom, the trailblazing founder of Bryn Mawr’s geology department, was recent honored by Johns Hopkins University, where her name now graces a building designed to foster undergraduate research. Bascom was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins, in 1893, and the second woman in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in geology. She founded Bryn Mawr's geology department in 1895 and taught at the school for 35 years.

“I remember early on, while preparing for a class on the Appalachians, I was reading Bascom’s seminal papers on the geology of the Piedmont— the geologic region in which Bryn Mawr College resides—and was struck by the impressiveness of the work, the thoroughness of her observations, and her innate ability to synthesize and develop novel hypotheses about geologic principles that had yet to be established,” says Professor Arlo Weil, who has chaired the geology department for the last decade.

Bascom Undergraduate Teaching Laboratories
Bascom Undergraduate Teaching Laboratories

Bascom’s legacy lives on at Bryn Mawr in a variety of ways. Park Science Center is home to Bryn Mawr’s mineral collection, which now contains more than 100,000 rock and mineral specimens. Established by Bascom from specimens she collected herself, the collection has grown through significant donations by Theodore D. Rand in 1903 and George Vaux, Jr., in 1958, among others.

The three core collections (Bascom, Rand,and Vaux) comprise specimens that were collected in the late 1800s to early 1900s, with the remainder representing specimens collected from approximately 1970 to 1990. The collection spans more than 90 countries, all 50 U.S. states, and more than 1,000 individual mineral species.

“Florence Bascom still inspires us to think about who is being denied access to knowledge of our world and to dismantle those obstacles,” says Associate Professor of Geology Selby Hearth, who curates the collection. “Bascom did groundbreaking science, but more than that, she is a reminder that everyone deserves to know about the planet we live on and that we need the full scope of human experience represented in our sciences if we’re to solve the greatest threats facing our world today.”

Last fall, as they have done since Bascom led trips in the early years of the department, geology students took to the field, this time going to Four Corners, a region of the Southwest where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. While in the Grand Canyon, Weil had the students recreate a photo of Bascom and her students taken in 1906.

Over a century since Bascom founded it, Bryn Mawr’s geology department is still training professional women geologists and emphasizing the importance of field understanding our physical environment.

See highlights of the mineral collection Bascom started in the video below.