Scientist Spotlight: Mary Agnes Chases

Many people enjoy USDA approved meats, but few think about where the meats come from, or how the animals are fed. Botanist, suffragist, and illustrator Mary Agnes Chase determined the best grass to feed livestock, in addition to authoring many books on plants and studying commercially developed grass strands.

Despite not having an extensive formal education background, Mary became one of the world’s greatest agrostologist or grass expert for those of us who didn’t know there was such a thing. Mary was born in 1869 in Chicago, and began working odd jobs in stockyards, grocery stores, and a newspaper right after grammar school to help support her family. She did not let her responsibility hinder her passion, however, and she took trips to sketch plants and spent her spare change to take botany classes at the University of Chicago and Lewis Institute.

Botanist Reverend Ellsworth Jerome Hill mentored Mary, and in exchange, she illustrated his papers. Mary submitted two Chicago Field Museum of Natural History publications and landed a part-time job at the museum. There, she learned how to use a microscope and do technical drawings, and soon became a full-time illustrator for the United States Department of Agriculture for a salary of $720 per year.

For over thirty years at the USDA, Mary worked with Albert Hitchcock. The pair collected and classified plants in North and South America. They also researched commercially developed grass strains and assured they were properly advertised. Thanks to their work, we know more about our food and its production.

Hitchcock died in 1935, but Mary continued her studies in


Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institute

agrostology. She was promoted to Senior Botanist in Charge of Systematic Agrostology. As a female, Mary was denied funding to travel but that did not stop her from traveling around the United States and South America to collect species from over 12,200 plants. She paid her own fare for many of the trips and donated her collections to the Smithsonian and National Herbarium. Mary independently wrote and illustrated the first book of grasses called The Structure of Grasses Explained for Beginners. Mary also coauthored many other books, even when she was over ninety years old.

Mary’s career did not stop at grass – she was extremely active politically. She was involved in the NAACP, National Women’s Party, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1918, she was jailed for participating in the hunger strike and was almost fired from the USDA. Even after woman gained the right to vote, Mary opened her Washington D.C. residence to Latin American botanists to stay while they learned in the United States. Her house became known as “Casa Contenta.”

Mary left a legacy, both in agrostology and politics. She was given an honorary degree from the University of Illinois and was an honorary fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, and a fellow at the Linnean Society of London.  Mary’s passion for grass may be unique, but without her curiosity, our food industry, and knowledge of grass, in general, would be deficient.

For more on Mary:

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Have Changed the World, Rachel Ignotofsky

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