Monday, September 13, 2010

Cornelia Clermont Cameron

By way of introduction, this post was originally scheduled for a long-ago second edition of the Diversity in Science Carnival, started by DNLee at Urban Science Adventures! in February, 2009 (1st edition here). The second edition — which highlighted women in science — was published at Thus Spake Zuska in March, 2009 (originally at Sb). The carnival came and went without me publishing this post about Cornelia Cameron, one of the first professional woman geologists I ever met. Now, I have a perfectly good second opportunity, because @JacquelynGill announced a Women in Science blogfest and tweetfest for today! Follow the Twitter Fest at #womeninscience.

I didn't get to work with Cornelia Cameron, but I met her — and saw her in the halls when she wasn't out in the field — when I was at the USGS in Reston part of one year while in between undergrad and grad school. She was only six years older than I am now, was often smiling, and looked sun-leathered from many years of field work. She was practically one of the first women to have a real geological career (not the first, however, read about Mary Anning and others here). The photo, which *no longer* links through to the source (the website looks like it was hacked, so I deleted its URL), was taken when she was working in the Tobacco Range Islands of central America at age 78. You can see another photo of Cornelia here.

Cornelia Cameron was born in 1911, way before my time or yours. She had the extreme good fortune to have both a scientific father and scientific mother. Her father was a professor of natural sciences and a photographer; her mother, Harriet Clearman Cameron, had an M.S. in Geology and had completed courses for a Ph.D. in Botany. Cornelia's father died when she was about 7, so she was raised from then on by her mom.

Cornelia earned a B.A. and M.A. in Botany in 1933 and 1935, and in 1940 she got her Ph.D. in Geology, with an emphasis on geomorphology. She worked for various geological outfits during her career, inlcuding Cities Service Oil Company, the Iowa Geological Survey, and Stephens College. She was at the USGS from 1951 until she died in 1994 at the age of 83. During the height of her career, she was one of the world's foremost experts on peat deposits, and received many awards for her work: the USGS Meritorious Service award in 1977, the DOI Distinguished Service Award in 1986, a Distinguished Alumni Award from University of Iowa in 1987, and DOI's Public Service Recognition Award in 1990. She was also a prolific writer, publishing a total of 110 papers, of which I list very few, below.

As I said earlier, I didn't really know her, but I do know that she was regarded as quite a character, and I heard a few stories about her field adventures when I worked at the USGS. She and her mom were both going into the field together when I was there in 1975 (she was 64, her mom was 103!), and I remember that she was known for having male field assistants to collect rocks and carry packs as needed, a luxury I have had only one time during my career. Here are a couple quotes about Cornelia and her mom (this source):
Until she was 103, the senior Dr. Cameron accompanied her daughter on field expeditions around the world. Dr. Cornelia Cameron herself continued doing field work until a month before her death at 83. Dr. Cameron joked that when her mother got so old that her eyesight had deteriorated, she put a cow bell on her mother in the field, so she could find her mother if she wandered off.
And from Jennifer Harden (same source):
In a story about daughter and mother’s adventurous military terrain investigations in the Caribbean area before the Bay of Pigs invasion (early 1960’s), Dr. Cameron recounted that “Mother and I were a perfect pair. We told everyone that we were Canadian tourists. One time, as I doing traverses along the slopes of one of the islands, Mother stayed in the car. I was upslope from her when I saw a truck full of guerrillas pull up. Mother simply charmed them and they drove off.”
At some point during my research for this post, I read something stating that Harriet Cameron died in September of 1975, shortly after I left the USGS for grad school. If so, the date — either 9/22 or 9/23 according to my notes — would jive with my memory that Cornelia's mom was still going into the field with her while I was there. I can no longer find the reference.

A Few of her many Publications:
Cameron, C.C., 1970, Peat deposits of northeastern Pennslyvania: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1371-A.

Cameron, C.C., 1970, Peat deposits of southeastern New York: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1317-B.

Cameron, C. C., 1970, Peat resources of the unglaciated uplands along the Allegheny Structural Front in West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania: U. S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 700-D, pp. D153 - D161.

Cameron, C.C., and Palmer, C.A., 1995, The Mangrove Peat of the Tobacco Range Islands, Belize Barrier Reef, central America: Atoll Research Bulletin 431, with a tribute and photo.

Cameron, C. C., 2000, The bogs of Roosevelt Campobello International Park: Roosevelt Campobello International Park Commission.

Read more about Cornelia Clermont Cameron:
Levine, Maxine, 2007, Women in Soil Science: AWSS Newsletter, v. 26, no. 3, p. 10-15.

New York Times, 1994, Cornelia Cameron; Peat Expert Was 83: August 10, 1994, Obituaries.

University of Iowa, 1987, Distinguished Alumni Winner: Cornelia Cameron.

University of Iowa, Cornelia Cameron Papers: Iowa Women's Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries.

Minor editing 8Mar2012; Links updated 19May2013 and 25Feb2017


Anne Jefferson said...

Wow! What a wonderful character to learn about. Even being in the same hallway as a woman like this can be an inspiration. Thank you for blogging about her.

Cian said...

This is so interesting! Stories like this are great, because they show that women have been active professional geoscientists in government and industry for so long. (which matters, because some people still seem surprised by it) And to be doing field work until 103 or 83! Oh, that we all should be so lucky.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Great story! I love the idea of the venerable old lady out in the field, charming the revolutionaries!

Silver Fox said...

Thanks all! Glad you enjoyed - I only wish I knew more, but she's been in my mind ever since working there.

Gaelyn said...

Right on! Women to look to as mentors.