ALD23 Books: Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon, Melissa L Sevigny

Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon, Melissa L Sevigny

In the summer of 1938, botanist Elzada Clover and PhD student Lois Jotter set off from the University of Michigan to travel the Colorado River, accompanied by an ambitious expedition leader and three amateur boatmen. The expedition held a tantalising appeal for Clover and Jotter: no one had yet surveyed the plant life of the Grand Canyon, and they were determined to be the first. Journalists and veteran river-runners proclaimed that the motley crew would never make it out alive, but the reputation of the Colorado River as the most dangerous river in the world did not deter the women from their mission. The adventurous expedition is all the more remarkable considering the context of attitudes towards women in botany at the time, which, like many other areas of science, was very much male-dominated. 

Through the vibrant letters and diaries of the two women, science journalist Melissa L Sevigny traces their daring 43-day journey down the Colorado River, during which they meticulously catalogued the thorny plants that thrived in the Grand Canyon’s secret nooks and crannies. Along the way, they chased a runaway boat, ran the river’s most fearsome rapids, and turned the harshest critic of female river-runners into an ally. These brave and pioneering women garnered significant publicity and curiosity at the time for their expedition, and their work has had a lasting impact on the scientific understanding of this unique landscape. Clover and Jotter’s plant list, including four new cactus species, would one day become vital for efforts to protect and restore the river’s ecosystem. 

Brave the Wild River is a joyful and spellbinding adventure story of two women who risked their lives to make an unprecedented botanical survey of a defining landscape in the American West at a time when human influences had begun to change it forever.

Order the book on Bookshop.org.uk.

About the Author 

Melissa Sevigny is a science journalist and reporter at KNAU (Arizona Public Radio) in Flagstaff, Arizona. She has worked as a science communicator in the fields of planetary science, Western water policy, and sustainable agriculture. Her lyrical nonfiction explores the intersections of science, nature, and history, with a focus on the American Southwest. Sevigny is also the author of Mythical River (University of Iowa Press, 2016) and Under Desert Skies (University of Arizona Press, 2016). She earned a BS in Environmental Science & Policy from the University of Arizona and an MFA in Creative Writing & Environment from Iowa State University. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

You can follow Melissa Sevigny’s work here:

Website: Melissa L. Sevigny – Science Writer (melissasevigny.com)
Twitter: @MelissaSevigny
Bluesky: @melissasevigny.bsky.social

With thanks to Synergy for their support.

ALD23: Dr Lori Alvord, Surgeon

Dr Lori Alvord

Dr Lori Arviso Alvord is an American surgeon who became the first Navajo woman to be certified in surgery in 1994. She blends traditional Navajo healing techniques with conventional Western medicine, with the aim of providing Native American people with culturally competent healthcare and accelerating the recovery process for all patients.

Alvord was born in 1958 to a Diné father and White mother on the Navajo reservation of Crownpoint, New Mexico. She initially majored in natural sciences at Dartmouth College but received low grades. Believing she wasn’t clever enough to pursue a STEM career, she switched to a double social sciences major with a minor in Native American studies, graduating in 1979.

However, a neuroanatomy course at college had ignited Alvord’s interest in neurology. She joined a neurobiology clinic as a research assistant, where colleagues encouraged her to apply to medical school. She was accepted into Stanford University Medical School and earned her MD in 1985.

Medical school is always tough, but it posed specific challenges for Alvord, whose training required her to go against some Navajo traditions. She undertook a six-year residency at Stanford University Hospital after her M.D., then began practising as a surgeon with the Indian Health Service in Gallup, New Mexico. In 1994, she earned her board certification as a surgeon – the first Diné or Navajo woman to ever do so.

During her time in Gallup, Alvord cared for her own tribal members and observed that their needs, concerns and traditions often clashed with her conventional Western medical training. She began to develop a new philosophy of surgical care that respects Native American culture. Alvord has been particularly influenced by Navajo beliefs about the importance of harmony. In the context of medicine, this involves paying attention to all aspects of a patient’s life – including their personal relationships and psychological and spiritual wellbeing – rather than trying to address physical ailments in isolation.

Alvord also incorporates Navajo songs, symbols and ceremonial rituals into her practice, recognising that these can ease stress in a way that helps accelerate healing. Respect for nature is central to Alvord’s work, too; she advocates for hospitals “where you can see trees and grass and sky and sun”.

In 1999, Alvord published a bestselling memoir about her surgical career, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear. She has held a number of prestigious academic posts in the US since the 1990s, including assistant professor of surgery and psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School, associate faculty member for the Center for American Indian Health at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and associate dean of the Central Michigan University College of Medicine. In 2013, she was nominated to serve as U.S. Surgeon General.

Today, Alvord is chief of staff at Astria Health in Washington in the United States, where she continues to focus on surgical care that incorporates patients’ native culture. She has published research articles in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, and expressed pleasure that mainstream scientific research is beginning to support  some Native philosophies and practices – from meditating to reduce stress and increase immune responses to the benefits of following a high-vegetable, low-meat diet. Her goal, she says, is to “achieve a better way to deliver health care not just for Native people, but for everyone”.

Alvord’s honours include the Wallace Sterling Lifetime Achievement Award from the Stanford Medicine Alumni Association in 2018, and recognition from the Navajo Area Health Board for her “dedication and concern for the quality of healthcare on the Navajo Nation”.

You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @lori_alvord

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23: Dr Laura Bassi, Physicist & Philosopher

Dr Laura Bassi

Laura Bassi Veratti was an 18th century Italian physicist and philosopher who made history as the first woman in the world to have a doctorate in science. She was also the first woman to become a salaried university tutor, and possibly the first woman ever to achieve a fully-fledged scientific career.

Bassi was born in Bologna in 1711 and privately tutored from the age of five. Impressed by her intelligence, Bassi’s family doctor – who was also professor of medicine at the University of Bologna – asked to have a hand in her education, teaching her subjects including philosophy, metaphysics and logic. By the time Bassi was 20, people would visit her home to watch the brilliant young woman debate philosophy and physics with leading male academics.

The Archbishop of Bologna became Bassi’s patron, and arranged for her to publicly defend 49 philosophy theses before professors of the University of Bologna in April 1732. She was promptly awarded a doctorate in natural sciences and philosophy (the second woman to earn a doctorate in philosophy, after Elena Cornaro Piscopia in 1678, as well as the first to have a science doctorate). Bassi was also elected to the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of Bologna, making her the first female member of any Western scientific establishment.

Those weren’t the only big moments for Bassi in 1732. Later that year, she was appointed professor of natural philosophy at the University of Bologna. At 21, not only was she the university’s first female teacher, she was the first paid woman lecturer in the world.

However, while the university was keen to publicise Bassi’s appointment, it was less keen to place her on genuinely equal footing with male academics. She was blocked from teaching ordinary classes and only allowed to lecture publicly at occasional high-profile events. But Bassi had no interest in serving as a ceremonial female figurehead; she wanted to work and teach.

Unusually for the time, Bassi’s marriage helped her pursue her academic and professional ambitions. After she married fellow scientist Giuseppe Veratti in 1738, it was seen as acceptable for her to lecture from her Bologna home (a more controversial activity for a single woman). She started running eight-month courses of daily lessons that combined theoretical and experimental physics in a manner not taught at the University of Bologna.

Bassi was particularly interested in experimenting with electricity, then an exciting new discovery. Students flocked from all over Europe to learn from her. Over time, she gained a reputation as a supporter of the theories of Isaac Newton, and helped introduce Newtonian physics and natural philosophy to Italy.

She authored 28 papers, mostly on physics and hydraulics. While few of Bassi’s works survive today, her influence can be seen in her correspondence with leading scientists and philosophers of her time. Her greatest professional achievement came when she was appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics by the Bologna Institute of Sciences in 1776. It was her final history-making moment: she was now the first woman in the world to be appointed to a chair of physics at a university.

Bassi died on 20 February 1778 aged 66, having achieved the kind of success as a scientist and academic that many others – men and women alike – could only dream of.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23: The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present, Alison Richard

The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present, Alison Richard

A moving account of Madagascar told by a researcher who has spent over fifty years investigating the mysteries of this remarkable island.

Madagascar is a place of change. A biodiversity hotspot and the fourth largest island on the planet, it has been home to a spectacular parade of animals, from giant flightless birds and giant tortoises on the ground to agile lemurs leaping through the treetops. Some species live on; many have vanished in the distant or recent past. Over vast stretches of time, Madagascar’s forests have expanded and contracted in response to shifting climates, and the hand of people is clear in changes during the last thousand years or so. Today, Madagascar is a microcosm of global trends. What happens there in the decades ahead can, perhaps, suggest ways to help turn the tide on the environmental crisis now sweeping the world.

The Sloth Lemur’s Song is a far-reaching account of Madagascar’s past and present, led by an expert guide who has immersed herself in research and conservation activities with village communities on the island for nearly fifty years. Alison Richard accompanies the reader on a journey through space and time—from Madagascar’s ancient origins as a landlocked region of Gondwana and its emergence as an island to the modern-day developments that make the survival of its array of plants and animals increasingly uncertain. Weaving together scientific evidence with Richard’s own experiences and exploring the power of stories to shape our understanding of events, this book captures the magic as well as the tensions that swirl around this island nation.

About the author

Professor Dame Alison Richard received her undergraduate degree in Anthropology at Cambridge University, and her doctorate from London University. In 1972, she joined the faculty of Yale University, where she became professor of anthropology in 1986, chairing the Department of Anthropology from 1986 to 1990, and later serving as director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, where she oversaw one of the most important university natural history collections in the USA. From 1994-2002, she served as Provost of Yale, with operational responsibility for the University’s financial and academic programs and planning. In 1998 she was named the Franklin Muzzy Crosby Professor of the Human Environment.

From 2003-2010, Professor Richard was Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, a position carrying the responsibilities of university president. During her tenure, she led several major changes in university policy, reorganised management of the University’s endowment, expanded Cambridge’s global partnerships, and launched and completed a billion pound fund-raising campaign. Her achievements received recognition in 2010, when she was awarded a DBE (Dame Commander of the British Empire) for her services to Higher Education.

As a researcher, Professor Richard is widely known for her work and writings on the evolution of complex social systems among primates. This work has taken her to Central America, Northern Pakistan and, in particular, to the forests of Madagascar. Professor Richard has been working in Madagascar since 1970, when she spent 18 months studying the socioecology of sifaka, Propithecus verreauxi, for her PhD. Since 1984, in collaboration with colleagues in Madagascar and the US, her research has focused on the demography and social behavior of the sifaka population at Bezà Mahafaly, Madagascar. In 1975, with colleagues from the University of Antananarivo and Washington University, she launched the Bezà Mahafaly partnership for conservation, research and training, and she has been deeply involved in that activity ever since.

Professor Richard is a trustee of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Liz Claiborne & Art Ortenberg Foundation. She chairs the Advisory Board of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and the Leadership Council of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, and serves on the Advisory Board of Arcadia. She has received numerous honorary doctorates, and in 2005 she was appointed Officier de l’Ordre National in Madagascar.

With thanks to Synergy for their support.

ALD23: Clara Immerwahr, Chemist

Clara Immerwahr

Clara Helene Immerwahr was a German chemist and the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in chemistry from a German university.

Born into a Jewish family on 21 June 1870 in eastern Prussia – now part of Poland – Immerwahr initially trained as a teacher, one of few higher educational paths open to German women at the time. However, she was determined to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a chemist. She embarked on gruelling private lessons and exams to gain entry to the University of Breslau to study chemistry, where she was required to attend lectures as a guest, female university students technically being barred under Prussian law.

At university, Immerwahr became fascinated by the rapidly developing field of physical chemistry. After completing undergraduate studies, she became the first woman to undertake a PhD at the University of Breslau, receiving her doctorate in chemistry magna cum laude in 1900. She reached this milestone after eight semesters of study, two more than was required for male doctoral candidates.

Immerwahr’s research focused on solution chemistry – a central focus of chemists at the turn of the 20th century – examining issues such as solubility, ion concentration and electrochemical potential. She conducted experiments involving cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc and published three papers, as well an erratum and a supplement. Her investigations didn’t break new ground in chemistry, but her presence as a female scientist in a laboratory did. When Immerwahr defended her PhD thesis on the solubility of heavy metal salts in the university’s main hall in central Breslau, many young women came to watch, intrigued by the city’s “first female doctor”.

Not long after receiving her doctorate, Immerwahr married the German chemist Fritz Haber. The rigid gender norms and societal conventions of early 20th century Prussia meant this effectively marked the end of Immerwahr’s own scientific research career, although she did try to maintain her connection to science, including by delivering public presentations on the role of chemistry and physics in the household. She is also believed to have contributed to Haber’s work, albeit with scant public recognition, including by translating some of his papers into English.

The curbing of Immerwahr’s career, along with the start of World War I and the tragic accidental deaths of two close friends (including her PhD supervisor and academic mentor), are believed to have contributed to her increasing unhappiness. She died by suicide on 2 May 1915, aged 44. The same night, her husband – sometimes referred to as the “father of chemical warfare”, due to the instrumental role he played in developing poison gases for use on the battlefield – had been at a party, celebrating the “success” of the German army’s first chlorine cloud attack against Allied troops.

There has been much debate about Immerwahr’s political beliefs, and whether her death was linked to her discomfort with her husband’s role in the German war effort. What is clear is that she was a determined and ambitious scientist whose career was curtailed by the limitations placed on women’s lives at the time. Her husband would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.