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Agnes Chase: On Botany and Rebellion


A botanist dedicated her life to the study of grasses and to the struggle for justice.

Grass is perhaps the humblest of plants, and therein lies its radical beauty. Agnes Chase (1869-1963) dedicated her life to studying grass and to a profound radicalism. An active campaigner for women’s suffrage, she also dedicated herself to the rights of multiple disadvantaged communities. But it was her scientific work and the way she devoted herself to what she loved, despite all the obstacles, that made her one of history’s most inspiring scientists and activists.  

Having grown up in a rural environment with scarce resources, she received little formal education. After several jobs and a premature widowhood, she attended some classes at the University of Chicago. There, her attention was drawn to botany and she began to make exploratory trips to research the plants that would be her specialization: grasses. The family includes grass and other types of plants like wheat, maize, barley, bamboo and rye.

Chase was especially interested in pastureland because, according to her, it’s what keeps the Earth together (accepting all the metaphorical implications implied therein). Her talents eventually led her to work first as a botanical illustrator, and later to work for the Bureau of Plant Industry, an early agency within the US Department of Agriculture. There, she met Albert Spear Hitchcock, another expert on grasses. He would accompany Chase on a good part of her career. Together, the two were to travel throughout the Americas, as agrostologists.

Hitchcock and Chase developed an ambitious project for the observation, collection, description, identification, and classification of all of America’s grass species and it led them to travel all over North and South America. To complete their voyages, they solicited funds from institutions, and invariably, economic support was given only to Hitchcock and not to Chase because she was a woman. This didn’t stop her. She got the necessary funds for her own travels through the women’s associations and missionaries to which she’d belonged throughout her life.

Chase travelled South America as best she could: by train, by bus, by car, on horseback, and on foot. In Brazil, she undertook several expeditions which included scaling the two highest peaks in the country, and in her lifetime, she published canonical books on the pastureland of the Americas. As with the case of Caroline Herschel —who had to work for her brother before she was able to access the resources needed to carry out her own astronomical research— Chase had to occasionally rely on a male colleague in order to take her research trips, to develop her career, and to achieve a name and place in the scientific environment of her time, still quite common in the early 20th century. It’s no surprise that Chase’s struggle was similar to that of grass: she walked a humble path but one of resistance and strength.

Image: Chang Qing – Unsplash

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