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The untold story of two sisters whose discoveries sped the growth of American science in the nineteenth century.
Catherine McNeur is an associate professor of history at Portland State University in Oregon and the author of Taming Manhattan. She is the recipient of several awards, including the American Society for Environmental History's George Perkins Marsh Prize. She lives in Portland, Oregon.??
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"The nineteenth century was a transformative period in the history of American science, as scientific study, once the domain of armchair enthusiasts and amateurs, became the purview of professional experts and institutions. In Mischievous Creatures, historian Catherine McNeur shows that women were central to the development of the natural sciences during this critical time. She does so by uncovering the forgotten lives of entomologist Margaretta Hare Morris and botanist Elizabeth Morris-sister scientists whose essential contributions to their respective fields, and to the professionalization of science as a whole, have been largely erased. Margaretta was famous within antebellum scientific circles for her work with seventeen-year cicadas and for her discoveries of previously undocumented insect species and the threats they posed to agriculture. Unusually for her time, she published under her own name, and eventually became one of the first women elected to both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Margaretta's older sister Elizabeth preferred anonymity to accolades, but she nevertheless became a trusted expert on Philadelphia's flora, created illustrations for major reference books, and published numerous articles in popular science journals. The sisters corresponded and collaborated with many of the male scientific eminences of their day, including Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz, although they also faced condescension and outright misogyny: no less a figure than Charles Darwin dismissed Margaretta's (correct) assertion that water beetles help to move fish eggs from lake to lake, and the sisters long suspected that an arsonist who twice targeted their property was motivated by misogynist resentment. Alongside the lives of the Morris sisters, McNeur traces the larger story of American science's professionalization, a process that began, she shows, earlier in the nineteenth century than is traditionally thought. She reveals an early Republic hungry to define itself and eager to keep pace with the scientific culture of Europe, as the sciences transformed from hobbies into careers, with more government and university support, professional journals and organizations. Ironically, while women like the Morris sisters were central to the growth and development of their fields, this very transformation would ultimately wrest opportunities from women in the generations that followed, confining women in science to underpaid and underappreciated positions. Mischievous Creatures is not only an overdue portrait of two pioneering women scientists, but also a vital and revelatory new history of the birth of modern American science"--