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Women are making an increasingly visual presence in the world of aquatics, and the hobby has a long history of female pioneers. So why don’t we hear more about them, asks Ingrid Allan.

It may not feel like it when you’re lugging buckets of water around or scratching your head over a mysterious fatality, but we fish-keepers have never had it so easy. With thousands of species readily available and a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, it’s important to be thankful to those who made it all possible. Much has been made of the Amanos and Axelrodis of this world, but with march being Women’s History Month I wanted to shed a bit of light on some of the amazing contributions that female ichthyologists, zoologists, and biologists have made to the hobby.

Pre-1900s: An emerging science in an age of suffrage 

During the reign of Queen Victoria, public interest in the natural sciences grew to previously unseen levels, not only among the landed gentry but in the emerging middle classes too. The publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859 shattered many previously held beliefs about the natural world and heralded a new age of more enlightened evolutionary biology. Combine this with new developments in transport, taxidermy and preservation, and suddenly every man of means wanted to discover a new species. 

Mary Kingsley.

This wasn’t necessarily good news for women. They still couldn’t vote or own property and they had limited freedom outside the control of their husbands and fathers. Those for whom an education — let alone one in the sciences — was given willingly were few and far between.   

To an unlucky majority of young women at the time, such as the English writer, explorer and autodidact zoologist Mary Kingsley (1862-1900), a girl’s formal education was deemed entirely unnecessary even among many of the wealthier Victorians. However, Kingsley was determined and forged her own scientific path, thanks to her father’s vast library and the academic connections of her brother Charley. Though she went on to study medicine, her parents’ ill health forced her to spend a lot of her young life caring for them. It was only when both died in 1892 that she found herself free to explore, aided by a sizeable inheritance. 

Mary Kinglsey as photographed on a collecting expedition.

Travelling around Africa as a solo European woman without the accompaniment of a husband or missionary group was highly unusual at the time, but Mary Kingsley still managed to bring back over 65 species of fish. Most of these had never been formally described and seven of them were entirely new to science. Three species were named after her, including the Tailspot climbing-perch, Ctenopoma kingsleyae. Kingsley can be credited with much of the early interest in mormyrids and African spiny eels, which she collected on her travels. Had she not caught typhoid at the tender age of 37 while treating POWs as a volunteer nurse in the second Boer war, she would doubtless have uncovered many more.  

Around the same time that Mary Kingsley had set out on her first voyage, an American marine biologist had also shattered a significant glass ceiling. 

Cornelia Clapp (1849-1934) was also a pioneer but — unusually for women of the era — managed to succeed and break new ground within existing academic frameworks. She earned not only the first but also the second Ph.D to be awarded to a woman in the United States in 1889 and 1896 respectively. Though she published very little beyond a dissertation on Batrachoidiformes (the hideous but fascinating Toadfish family) throughout her long career, she was widely regarded as one of the greatest zoologists of her time. 

Cornelia Clapp

It was as an educator that Cornelia Clapp truly made her mark. Starting out as a mathematics and natural history teacher at Massachusetts’ Mount Holyoke College (then a ‘female seminary’), she oversaw the foundation of its zoology department, becoming the department’s professor in 1904 and its first and only woman trustee right up until 1950. 

Clapp was well known for her hands-on teaching style. While completing her postgraduate studies at the college of the great biologist and taxonomist Louis Agassiz (from whom the Agassiz’s Apistogramma gets its name), she seems to have taken his favourite maxim “Study nature, not books” to heart. In fact, Louise Baird Wallace (who herself went on to become a prominent ichthyologist) recalls a school principal enthusiastically telling her “You ought to study under Dr Clapp. She keeps live frogs in tanks!” Her courses produced a number of other successful female ichthyologists and marine biologists including Edith White and Lucy Clemens.  Clapp demonstrated that it wasn’t just important for women to be publishing and discovering, they had to inspire the next generation too.   

1900-99: Exploring the stars… and the oceans 

The beginning of the 20th century saw the birth of another of the greats who also maintained a strong emphasis on teaching. Ethelwynn Trewavas (1900-1993) was born in Penzance and spent the first four years of her career as a science teacher while undertaking her own research into sea urchins. At the age of twenty-five, she was able to devote herself to full-time research publishing significant findings on amphibians as well as fish before being introduced to the Director  of the British Museum of Natural History Dr Charles Tate Regan. 

Ethelwynn Trewavas.

The meeting sparked a successful working partnership in which Trewavas, initially Regan’s assistant, collaborated with him on research into both African cichlids and deep-sea angler-fish. As one of the first to recognize the extraordinary biodiversity of African Rift Lake cichlids, Ethelwynn Trewavas paved the way for generations of future ichthyologists to continue identifying and studying Africa’s 1000+ cichlid species. In particular; her 1939 paper on Lake Malawi and its inhabitants remained the only document of its kind until well after the end of the Second World War, when she was given a position on the government’s Fishery Advisory Committee to the colonies. 

She continued to make collecting trips around Africa long after her retirement and can be credited with a substantial chunk of the British Museum’s archives. What stands up as an equally impressive legacy is her devotion to her colleagues, staff, students and the various scientific bodies she represented.

The end of the Second World War saw significant social and political changes including the roles of women in the workplace. The global conflict had created a generation of women labourers, drivers, code-breakers and indeed scientists who might previously have been expected to stay home and look after the children. Freed from these pressures by new developments in technology and opportunities for their education, relationship dynamics changed. 

Labeotropheus trewavasae, named in honour of Ethelwynn.

Many women found themselves working in collaboration with their husbands such as the British-born aquatic biologist Grace Pickford (1902-1986). Encouraged by her parents who believed wholeheartedly in education for both sexes, she enrolled at Cambridge where she met her future husband George Evelyn Hutchinson, after founding a small campus society for her fellow biologists. After they married, she travelled with him to the United States where she earned her US citizenship. 

She eventually became Associate Professor of Biology at Yale University, the first woman to have held the title. In addition to her ichthyological field-work, she was well-known for her studies of freshwater oligochaetes and octopods. Her discovery of the Vampyroteuthis or Vampire Squid sparked new scientific interest in so-called ‘living fossils’ and led to several decades of eye-opening deep-sea exploration. 

It’s incredible to think that we still know more about the content of the cosmos than we do about the deepest depths of the ocean, but the second half of the 20th century saw the emergence of two women who would change the popular understanding of the natural sciences forever and bring the mysteries of the deep into the public eye for the first time. 

Vampyroteuthis, one of many creatures studied by Grace Pickford. 

Rachel Carson (1907-1964) rose to prominence with the publication of her second book ‘The Sea Around Us’ in 1951. The book initially sold a quarter of a million copies and was translated into 28 different languages, making Carson a household name. Though she was a biologist by trade (through her work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) she had always dreamed of being a writer. Her ability to translate the data of her field into a readable narrative ensured that her four books (including the seminal ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 which led to huge changes in the law regarding chemical pesticides) were critically acclaimed and hugely successful. Despite her untimely death from cancer at the age of fifty-seven she was — and remains — a key voice of conservation in America and the world beyond.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson in the field. 

Though 28 years her junior Sylvia Earle (1935-) and Rachel Carson shared many similarities. Both were concerned primarily with the conservation of the world’s oceans over personal glory or acclaim. And both were accomplished in defending those cherished habitats against companies who sought to ruin them for profit. 


Growing up on the west coast of Florida with parents who encouraged and supported her love of the great outdoors, marine life captured Sylvia Earle’s imagination from a young age. In 1969 with a Ph.D. and Harvard fellowship under her belt, she set her sights on deep sea exploration, having already logged over 1000 hours of underwater research. Her enthusiasm paid off when, the following year, she led the first all-female aquanaut team as part of the second Tektite project. The team spent several weeks in an underwater research centre fifty feet below the surface, between the Atlantic and the Caribbean. 

Over the next two decades, Earle held several academic and advisory positions, going on to found Deep Ocean Engineering with British-born Graham Hawkes (who later became her husband). Many modern advances in piloted and robotic submarine technology have their beginnings in the work the two of them commissioned. Not one to shirk from a challenge, she also set the women’s depth record of 381 metres (1,250 ft) in a JIM suit by reaching the ocean floor near the Hawaiian island of Oahu in 1979. To top it off, she founded Mission Blue, a non-profit deep-water conservation initiative which her daughter still runs today.

Earle holds diving records. 

Silvia Earle alongside some of her innovations. 

Like many pioneers, Sylvia Earle has an impressive list of ‘firsts’ to her name. She was the first woman to be appointed Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the first ever recipient of Seattle Aquarium’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Thanks to major developments in diving equipment, she was the first to explore many parts of the open-ocean previously untouched by humans. But if there was one message to be taken from her brilliant 2014 Netflix documentary (also called ‘Mission Blue’) it’s that she dedicates her every waking moment to ensuring that she won’t be the last.            

The future: re-dressing the gender imbalance in contemporary ichthyology

Though the beginning of the 21st century has yielded some great advances in the struggle for equality, it has also meant saying goodbye to some truly inspirational people. In recent years we have mourned the passing of Rosemary Lowe-McConnell (1921-2014,) a brilliant British ichthyologist and ecologist well known for her work on Tilapia and rift-lake cichlids. Her 1977 study on the ecology of fish in tropical waters was a game-changer, as was her innovative use of scuba-diving equipment in scientific study. And like so many women we’ve discussed, her importance as an ichthyologist coincided with her ability to inspire others.  

Rosemary Lowe-McConnell.

I was lucky enough to watch a presentation by Dr Melanie Stiassny, who began her career as a protégé to both Lowe-McConnell and the late, great Ethelwynn Trewavas. When we spoke at a Catfish Study Group convention, she was full of admiration for her two mentors (Trewavas actually funded her first trip to Africa when she worked under her at the British museum) and from the sense of excitement I felt at hearing her stories of the lower Congo basin — catfish with olfactory rosettes so long they’re capable of sniffing, and blind, de-pigmented cichlids from cavernous underwater trenches beneath white-water rapids — I’m sure they would both be extremely proud.

So, where does that leave us now? There are many more women working in the trade than ever before, and the once male-dominated world of aquatics shops now attracts a broader range of customers and staff. The enthusiasm and dedication of those who wish to see more women taking STEM subjects at degree level seems to be paying off, but until the day comes that an aspiring female ichthyologist is no longer likely to be the only woman on the boat, we’ve still got some way to go. 

Melanie has worked closely with auchenipterid catfishes.

I put the question of gender representation in the aquatic sciences to ecologist and Ph.D. student Gina Walsh who, over 120 years after her hero Mary Kingsley’s first voyage, is still flying the flag for women exploring the Afro tropics. She felt the matter had a clear cause and cure: “Diversity in an organisation fosters diversity. Our field suffers from significant gender (as well as race and cultural) disparity in academic institutions and organisations for many reasons, some of which are obvious and some more nuanced.” She was, however, optimistic for the future given that “larger institutions and bodies are establishing diversity policies to ensure that we bridge these gaps.” 

Those women who find themselves in positions of reverence or authority are usually keen to help other women in the field such as the Smithsonian’s Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, Dr Lynne Parenti; the second woman (but first ichthyologist) to be elected president of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. Together with the organisation’s first woman president Dr Marvalee Wake, she co-authored a celebratory paper on the changing roles of women in the organisation. 

Thankfully we appear to be entering more enlightened times and the hard work of nearly two centuries of pioneering female ichthyologists has paid off. These days universities, museums and scientific institutions can finally look past the gender of the scientist to what really matters; their affection, enthusiasm and knowledge of the fish they study. 

It is in asking Gina Walsh about favourite discoveries that she really displays her passion for field-work, recalling a Microctenopoma (a small climbing perch) species that she found “in water that had accumulated in the footprint of an elephant on the edge of a swamp forest. I was astounded to see this tiny fish with its huge eye looking back at me when I examined the contents of my net!” And like Sylvia Earle she is driven by the irresistible ‘lure of the unknown’ explaining that: “Not long ago, scientists speculated that we had formally described the majority of freshwater fish species in Southern Africa. Now with advances into poorly explored geographic areas and new methods for collecting and interrogating data, we realise that that this is actually far from the case.” 

As we move into this new era let’s revel in the latest discoveries of a much more equal body of scientists. But let’s not forget those brave women who waded through swamps in Victorian hooped skirts, dove to new depths and probably endured years of matrimonial guilt to get us here in the first place.