A “Laidy” Geologist: Dr. Katharine Fowler-Billings

“Look at your daughter now,” Katharine Fowler (1902-1997) wrote to her parents on a photo of herself practicing rattlesnake shooting in the Laramie Mountains.

 In her 1996 autobiography, “Stepping-stones; The Reminiscences of a Woman Geologist in the Twentieth Century,” Boston-bred woman said her French nanny, who killed garter snakes and sent skins to France, “….instilled in me a lifelong fear and distrust of these reptiles.”  That could have been her only fear.

From an early age she broke out of the roles expected of someone whose family went back to 1700s in Massachusetts; she was nearly expelled from school, frequently found herself in perilous predicaments – forest fires, train crashes, dangerous glacier hikes--and had adventures her female contemporaries avoided. Indeed, at the time people thought women were physically incapable of having these adventures.

 Young Fowler spent summers in New Hampshire.  There she discovered geology observing the differences between the coastal terrain near her home and the mountains.  “What a great training ground these explorations would prove to be for the years of fieldwork that lay ahead,” she wrote, referring to several important studies she published on Wyoming, African and New Hampshire geology.

Fieldwork eventually took her to the Laramie Mountains.

 She studied geology at Bryn Mawr and attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin where she was the geology department’s first female student. Often she was one of only a few females in her programs and felt she needed to “barge into a man’s world,” to help change entrenched anti-female attitudes in the field of geology.  Once, in order to participate in a field school considered “too much a hardship” for women, she posed as another woman’s chaperone so both could attend

 One summer, on a trip to copper mines in Montana, she was mistakenly called a “young fella.” Her guide retorted, “That ain’t no young fella. That’s a ‘laidy’ geologist.” In her memoir, she writes, “…with these words I had finally gained the recognition I had worked so hard to attain.”

 During her Columbia University studies (Ph.D. 1929), Fowler participated in a 1927 field course in Wyoming. “Doc” Knight, UW’s sole geology professor, led the school in the Medicine Bow Mountains and Plumbago Canyon in the Laramie Mountains. She decided then to study anorthosites, granular igneous rocks displaying blue, gray, black or white crystals on their surfaces that can be viewed today at several road cuts along Highway 34 through Sybille Canyon

 In 1928, Fowler drove from New York City. to Laramie in an old Model A Ford, and set off for the Laramie Mountains to create the first geologic, historic and topographic maps of a previously-unstudied area measuring 10 x 40 miles. With only a teepee and Rocksie, a stray dog who adopted her in Laramie, she was alone in the mountains for three months. She encountered sheepherders who didn’t appreciate her “’fancy food,’” wild horses that almost trampled her, isolated homesteaders “suspicious of my actions,” and bootleggers! She returned to Columbia with rock samples to study over the winter – and Rocksie.

 Dr. Fowler was a woman ahead of her time in her field, but she was a woman of her time too. Told by her brother that she was “too plain” to ever marry, she succumbed to the attentions of a well-established fellow geologist while vacationing in Africa and married him.  British Geological Survey rules stipulated that wives couldn’t follow husbands into the field, so she traveled to Sierra Leone where rich mineral resources had been discovered to begin her own career.

But ultimately the forced separation and his unwillingness to stay in the U.S. destroyed the marriage. Once divorced, she taught at Wellesley College and continued her fieldwork “unraveling the secrets” of New Hampshire’s rocks.

 That’s how she met her second husband, Marland Billings, a prominent New England geologist. She assisted him in his research and fieldwork, and added his name to hers to become Dr. Katharine Fowler-Billings, which is how she is known now. She put her career on hiatus to start a family. But when childcare could be arranged, she returned to teaching at Wellesley and Tufts and to surveying and mapping New Hampshire again.  As a woman of her time, work was always done around the needs of her husband and two children.  

By RoseMarie Aridas

Caption: A well-shod Katharine Fowler practices shooting in the Laramie Mountains, summer, 1928. Additional photos of her fieldwork years are on display opposite Rm.1003 in the S.H. Knight Geology Building at UW. Photo courtesy of the Katharine Fowler-Billings family.