A Lasting Legacy

When women first started working at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in the late nineteenth century, they were hired as assistants, secretaries, and librarians—and only rarely as curators. Often assigned repetitive and mundane tasks, they nonetheless made significant contributions to the museum’s early history. This exhibit highlights their work for the first time. While their expertise and extensive knowledge of the museum’s collections may not have been fully appreciated by their contemporaries, today we recognize how their work allowed the museum to grow into its role as a center for research, teaching, and public programs.

Museum of Comparative Zoology, 1860

Courtesy of the Ernst Mayr Library ©President and Fellows of Harvard College

Assorted Responsibilities

As early as the 1860s, women worked as assistants, cataloging and labeling thousands of specimens. They also worked as secretaries, helping to promote the growth of the collections, and corresponding with donors and collectors to manage the exchange and expansion of numerous fields. Others promoted the study of science through public exhibitions and educational programs at the museum. By the early 20th century, some worked as curators, publishing their own research in scientific journals and text books, and donating their own collections from fieldwork and expeditions.