In 1908, Sara Josephine Baker became director of the department’s Bureau of Child Hygiene, the first of its kind in the country. She turned the bureau’s attention to tenement neighbourhoods, set up clean milk stations, dispatched trained nurses, and educated mothers in the science of germs and child hygiene.
Richards had initially planned to go into astronomy, but she found herself drawn again and again to more earthly aims. As the first female student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she applied rigorous chemistry to the home, starting a movement to empower housewives to advocate for home safety. Upon finishing her undergraduate studies, Richards summed up her goal to use science for practical good in a letter to her parents: “My life,” she wrote, “is to be one of active fighting.”
When asked nearly 60 years later why she had simply given away such a valuable invention, she made it clear that her aim wasn’t money or notoriety—it was making a point about the abilities and contributions of black women. “Forget me,” she said. “It’s what we have contributed to humanity—that as a black female we can do more than nurse their babies and clean their toilets.”
In the late 19th century, the idea that disease and death proliferated in poor black communities was taken as a given, even among doctors. Physician Rebecca J. Cole, one of the first black women doctors in America, pushed back against this racist assumption over a 30-year career in public health. As both a physician and an advocate, she worked to give her own community the tools and education they needed to change their circumstance, inspiring generations of doctors who focused specifically on black communities.
Soon after that first geology class, Marvin decided to change her major from history to geology. Yet although Nichols’s words had so inspired her, she encountered a shock when she told him her decision. “No, you cannot major in geology,” she recalled him saying. “You should be learning how to cook.” Undeterred, Marvin continued to fulfill the requirements for a history degree while taking myriad geology courses with a quiet resolve.
In her book, Edinger examined 280 papers that dealt with the brains and spinal cords of extinct vertebrates separately, but had not yet been looked at in relation to each other. Her achievement was to synthesize this work through the framework of two seemingly disparate fields: geology and neurology. Before her, paleoneurology was largely descriptive, based on the random collection and characterization of specimens. In her examination of a century’s worth of research, Edigner saw connections that no one else had noticed. She used these observations to establish, an idea that shaped the burgeoning field. As Buchholtz writes, Edinger had transformed paleoneurology “into a discipline that was taxonomically, chronologically, and functionally informed.”
Baber’s unapologetic speech was emblematic of her work as both a geographer and activist—two parts of her life that often blended and intertwined. As a geographer, she worked tirelessly to reform geography education to make it more meaningful and worthwhile for students. At first glance, her legacy appears to be that of an educator and reformer. Yet at the same time, she transformed the field of geography, by seeing it not as a means of colonization but of connection and understanding between cultures.