Dr. Mary Jane Rathbun, honorary associate in zoology
at the U.S. National Museum since November, 1915,
died at her home in Washington, D. C., on April 4.
Funeral services were held in Washington at the home
of her nephew, and burial was at her birthplace Buffalo,
Born in Buffalo on June 11, 1860 Miss Rathbun was
educated in the schools of that city and thereafter
devoted a long life of service to the Smithsonian
Institution and the U.S. National Museum.
Her brother, Richard Rathbun, later to become assistant
secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and director
of the National Museum, was, in the early 1870s,
already launched on a scientific career which had
grown out of his interest in fossil animals found
in his father's stone quarries in Buffalo. In the
summer of 1881, when he was scientific assistant in
the U.S. Fish Commission, his sister accompanied him
on one of his annual trips to the commission's summer
laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. There her
own interest in biological research was stimulated,
and she continued to visit Woods Hole for the next
three summers. So great was her interest that she
worked for the Fish Commission from 1881 to 1884 without
1884 she obtained a position as clerk in the Fish
Commission, which she held until 1887, when she was
appointed by Secretary Spencer F. Baird, of the Smithsonian
Institution, to a position as copyist in the Division
of Marine Invertebrates of the National Museum. Later
she became aide, then assistant curator of this division.
After her resignation in 1914, she was appointed honorary
associate in zoology, which title she held until her
Miss Rathbun worked for many years alone and unaided
to build up the Division of Marine Invertebrates to
its present high standard of excellence. She instituted
a record system upon which others have never been
able to improve. It not only is in use in the division
to this day, but has been studied and adopted by other
divisions of the museum. She also established a systematic
catalogue of the thousands of specimens of marine
invertebrates handled by the division, whose files
contain hundreds of catalogue cards made out by her
in longhand during the many years before a typist
was available for this work. The division, as it is
constituted and operated today, continues to rest
upon the solid foundation that she built for it.
of her enterprise, the collections and correspondence
of the division grew to such proportions that it became
imperative for her to have assistance in handling
them. When she asked for such an assistant, however,
she was told that the museum funds would not permit
the appointment of another person. It was then that
she made the decision which forever after endeared
her to her colleagues, and particularly to the man
who benefited by her action. Without hesitation, on
December 31, 1914, she resigned her position, in order
that her salary could be used for paying an assistant.
The assistant for whom she thus made place was Dr.
Waldo L. Schmitt, who later became curator of the
division. He declares that but for this act of sacrifice
he might never have embarked upon the career to which
he devoted his life and which has only recently led
to his designation as head curator of the Department
of Biology at the museum.
Though now resigned from the museum payroll, Miss
Rathbun went to work as usual, and continued to serve
full time for twenty-five years thereafter. Thus her
Government service ended as it beganwith devotion
to science and without compensation.
own special field of interest was the Crustacea, particularly
the crabs, both recent and fossil. Her bibliography
on the animals embraces 158 titles. Perhaps her most
important and best-known works are her four large
monographs on the grapsoid, spider, cancroid and oxystomatous
crabs of America, published as bulletins of the U.S.
National Museum between 1918 and 1937. In 1917 the
George Washington University conferred upon her the
degree of doctor of philosophy in recognition of her
work on the grapsoid crabs.
Rathbun was interested in a number of charities, but
her assistance and contributions to worthy enterprises
were given quietly and not much was known about them
by her colleagues. It is known, however, that for
some years after the last war, when life was very
difficult in Austria, she contributed to the support
of the small daughter of an Austrian scientist who
had long been one of her correspondents. It is only
to be hoped that her services to that child, who is
now a young woman in Nazi Germany, were not in vain.
Aside from her interest in her work, which took up
the greater part of her time, Miss Rathbun was interested
in both music and the theater. She was a familiar
figure at the concerts given in Washington by the
Philadelphia and Boston Orchestras until about four
years ago, when her health failed to such an extent
that she was no longer able to go out.
To those who knew her and worked with her, Miss Rathbun
was a staunch friend, an able counselor and a willing
guide. With her passing the museum and science have
lost a friend whose loyalty and devotion can not soon
U.S. National Museum
From Science, vol. 97, no. 2524,
by Waldo L. Schmitt, Smithsonian
shall never forget Miss Rathbun! Neither will any
of those who ever concerned themselves in any way
with crustacean systematics. Her published works alone
have enduringly established her as the foremost American
carcinologist of her day.
She was a remarkably gifted person. A small, neat
woman, no more than four and a half feet in height,
with plain, strong features, in conversation a most
interesting and engaging personality, with a dry sense
of humor, unobtrusively well endowed with the familial
traits that had brought success to the men of her
familyinnate ability, originality of thought,
initiative, and enterprise assured the success she
herself achieved in the field of carcinology.
Withal, she was a most kindly, charitable person,
generous to a fault. During the first World War she
quietly put aside all research and writing at the
Museum. She was seldom seen there for the duration
of the war, as she was serving in the local Red Cross
chapter, a dedicated "gray lady," turning
out bandages for the wounded. Then, as provisions
and meat became scarce, she sent food parcels to friends
and correspondents abroad, and on at least one occasion
a huge ham to Dr. W. T. Calman, a fellow carcinologist,
the late Keeper of Zoology in the British Museum.
Even after the war, as she became aware of the need,
she contributed to the support of the small daughter
of an Austrian scientist numbered among her foreign
accomplished a prodigious amount of work in her lifetimethe
identification of thousands of specimens, thereby
enhancing the Museums reference collections,
writing the Division's quarterly and annual reports,
carrying on an extensive official correspondence practically
all in longhand virtually up to the date of her resignation
(1914) and for some 25 years thereafter. All this
besides completing her published papers.
Miss Rathbun exemplified to a high degree what a quiet,
persevering, modestly ambitious and industrious individual,
starting from scratch (1881) could accomplish in less
than five decades in a chosen field of scientific
The fact that for much of her active life she held
relatively minor positions, first with the Commission
of Fish and Fisheries and afterwards in the U. S.
National Museum, never deterred her from rendering
faithful, conscientious performance of her assigned
duties, however routine they may have been.
She began, as we have seen, her first year (1886)
of life-time service in the Museum as a "copyist,"
a not uncommon title in the days before typewriters
came into general use in the Smithsonian Institution.
Advancing from an initial stipend of $ 580 per annum
by small biennial increments, she reached the clerical
level of compensation of $840 seven years later (1893).
During the last of her three years of tenure of the
position of 'clerk" she co-authored one (1891)
and was the sole author of five other systematic studies
(1892-1893). These accomplishments must have impressed
the powers "that were," for she was next
promoted (1894) to "aid" at $960 per annum,
and then four years and fifteen publications later
(1898) to "second assistant curator," a
title that appeared on a number of her publications
of this period, at $1200. For eight years she served
(1898-1906) at that modest emolument before her salary
was raised to $1320. She must have been an industrious
assistant curator, for, in addition to her routine
responsibilities, she produced thirty-five papers
besides giving some time to manuscripts of several
more published in the next year or two (1906, 1907).
This productivity, as the term is employed nowadays,
led eventually to her being advanced to full assistant
curator (1907), with an initial salary of $1380. Seven
more years passed before her annual salary reached
its maximum, $1800 (1913).
After serving a mere 18 months as full assistant curator
in complete charge of the operation of the Division
of Marine Invertebrates, she resigned on the 31st
day of December, 1914, with the explicit understanding
that her salary be devoted to the hire of an assistant
urgently needed for the preparation of the first of
her monographic handbooks on American crabs, upon
which she had started to work.
With the start of the New Year (1915), in recognition
of her long and devoted service to the Museum, the
Smithsonian designated her as Honorary Research Associate,
one of the Institution's select group of scholars
National Museum of Natural History in Washington,
1916, in recognition of her services to Science, the
University of Pittsburgh conferred on her an honorary
Masters Degree, after which she went on to qualify
for her doctorate at George Washington University
in Washington, D. C., in 1917.
Aside from several trips to Europe, in part to examine
crustacean collections in foreign museums, Miss Rathbun's
field work was centered in New EnglandWoods
Hole, Massachusetts, and South Harpswell, Maine. There,
with the assistance of an artist, Miss Violet Dandridge,
she made a comprehensive collection of all groups
of littoral invertebrates. These were sketched in
color by Miss Dandridge, in order that the natural
colors could be transferred to the preserved specimens
when they were later mounted to form a synoptic series
of east coast invertebrates.
Never, while able, could she resist the call of Crustacea
or the lure of the Museum's collections. She came
daily to her desk through the nineteen thirties until
failing health confined her to her home, where a few
years later she suffered a fall and a broken hip.
The ensuing complications hastened the end. She died
in her eighty-third year on April 14, 1943.
During her lifetime she gave the Museum her extensive
carcinological library, and at her death bequeathed
to the Smithsonian Institution $10,000 to further
work on decapod Crustacea in which many another student
became interested because of her personal encouragement.
Words alone do not suffice to express adequately my
high regard for Miss Rathbun and her works, published
or otherwise, my gratitude for all that she did for
me, and my respect for her as a woman and as a scientist.
"Mary Jane Rathbun" by Pamela
M. Henson in American National Biography (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1999.)
American National biography article states: "A
Unitarian, she displayed a warm interest in her colleagues
and encouraged the careers of many younger carcinologists.
She devoted her life to science."