Science and religion are a difficult mix, so imagine how hard it is holding on to both.
In the decade following the Civil War, self-taught naturalist Graceanna Lewis of Chester County hoped to turn her passion for science into an academic career. She published a natural history of birds, intending it to be the first in a series on the animal kingdom, and applied for a professorship at Vassar College. But Lewis’ dream ended with the bird book, and she was never hired for a college-level teaching position.
The problem? Lewis saw science as a search for God in an era when professional scientists increasingly frowned on that sort of approach. “To Graceanna, science was more than an intellectual exercise or end in itself,” wrote biographer Deborah Jean Warner. “By revealing God’s order, it facilitated an awareness and appreciation of Him.”
Lewis also believed that teaching ordinary citizens was just as important as pushing the frontiers of knowledge—a viewpoint that held little appeal to PhDs.
Born to Quakers John and Esther (Fussell) Lewis at Sunnyside, the family farm near Kimberton, Graceanna was one of four daughters. When she was only 3, her father died of typhus he’d caught while ministering to the needs of an infected African-American couple that others described as “utterly worthless” and refused to help. Yet John Lewis’ family had no regrets. “Never did his young widow or children express anything but admiration for this selfless act of Christian benevolence,” wrote Warner.
Changing the world was the theme of Graceanna Lewis’ childhood—one then focused mostly on slavery. For a quarter of a century, the Lewis women attended anti-slavery functions at least once a month. Quaker meetings and informal visiting were their only other social activities, and abolitionist newspapers were the only publications to which they regularly subscribed. Lewis later called Benjamin Lundy’s paper, The Genius of Universal Emancipation, “the delight of our childhood.” Abolitionist pledges and Quaker dues were their primary charities.Dozens, if not hundreds, of runaways passed through Sunnyside as they traveled north from other stations in Lancaster County and West Chester.
Warner didn’t doubt the Lewises’ benevolence, but she thinks they also enjoyed “the excitement and the sense of self-righteousness and martyrdom the fight provided.” As Lewis’ cousin, Edwin Fussell, later recalled, “Those were stirring times in Chester County, as elsewhere. We were surrounded by enemies; danger beset us at every step in the dark, yet there were few who bore the despised name of abolitionist that did not take up the work bravely.”
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Yet there were other interests.
In 1832, Esther Lewis sent her four young daughters to a course on natural philosophy given by an itinerant lecturer. To demonstrate his points, the man used an orrery—a model of the solar system—with rotating planets powered by a small steam engine. The girls also saw a microscope and a telescope, and they evidently came home quite excited. “I know not that it will be of use to them,” Esther wrote in a letter, “but think it will enlarge their idea of the Great Creator of all these wonderful works.” Two years later, for the same purpose, her girls went to an exhibit of “wild foreign animals.”
Esther sent her daughters to a nearby boarding school run by Emmor and Susan Kimber. The school was a family affair, in which the various Kimber daughters helped with instruction. One, Abigail, was a practicing botanist, and, as Lewis later wrote, it was Abigail’s influence that helped launch her own interests.
Of the four Lewis sisters, only one married. So, to provide for everyone, Esther divided the farm in the mid-1840s. Part went to the married sister, Rebecca, and her husband. On the remainder, Esther built a separate house for her unmarried daughters. She died in 1847. The following decade and a half were devoted to farming.
By the end of the Civil War, both of Lewis’ single sisters had also died. Now 45, Lewis—who had observed birds for many years—threw herself into the study of ornithology. She enjoyed sitting under her cherry trees and watching the birds feast on the fruit in spring. She studied with amateur Quaker naturalists, but was eventually referred on to John Cassin, curator of birds at the Academy of Natural Sciences and co-author of her favorite reference, The Birds of North America. “[Cassin] was determined and brusque, and some of his colleagues resented his manner,” wrote Lewis biographer Marcia Bonta. “Graceanna, on the other hand, found him to be a kind and caring friend.”
Cassin opened the academy and its resources to Lewis. He also referred her to other museum collections and mentors. In 1865, when she began offering ornithology classes for her neighbors, Cassin allowed her to include him as a reference in her brochures. Lewis also began work on her “series,” with which she hoped to interest the lay reader.
To be near the academy, Lewis moved to Philadelphia. Writing to a friend, Cassin called Lewis “a good naturalist” and admitted that she had noticed bird variations that even he had overlooked. With Cassin’s assistance, Lewis was even able to identify a new species: Agelaius cyanopus, a variety of blackbird native to South America.
Cassin died in 1869 of arsenic poisoning from handling preserved bird skins. Lewis never found another mentor.
Amateur scientists were nothing new, and many were Quakers. They approved of the study of the natural world because it was God’s creation and, therefore, worthy of attention. Lewis, however, had the misfortune of coming along as the sciences were professionalizing. The intent was to improve the various disciplines by weeding out quacks and charlatans, but it also barred individuals who had learned the old-fashioned way.
According to Warner, Lewis aspired to be like her contemporary, Maria Mitchell, who had also worked her way up in the sciences. The first American woman to work as a professional astronomer, Mitchell had discovered a comet at age 29 and subsequently taught at Vassar.
The women had a lot in common: both Quakers, both single, and both uncompromising feminists. Yet they had different attitudes toward science. “Mitchell aligned herself squarely with the professionals,” said Warner. “As a teacher, she concentrated her attention on those few students who chose to make a career of astronomy, and she used her professional influence to open graduate programs and scientific jobs to women.”
Mitchell was also a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Women and founder of its committee on science, which she chaired for 15 years and used to advocate for women.
Lewis came close. In 1876, she was ranked the second most important female scientist, behind Mitchell, in a list of American women. But she seems to have flopped in professional circles.
In 1869, Lewis—who had just published her bird book—attended the summer meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was where serious scientists were seen and heard. But Lewis never joined and never went back. “The evidence is negative, yet it is safe to assume that, for Graceanna, the meeting was a failure,” wrote Warner. “Most likely, her speculations (on the theological implications of animal anatomy) were not well received, and she, inexperienced in the give-and-take of public argument, took criticism of her work as criticism of her personally.”
One can almost hear the grave, bearded men informing Lewis that “such things fall outside the realm of science.”
“To gain acceptance for her scientific ideas,” wrote Warner, “Graceanna had to take them before a scientific audience. She had to present them forcefully, with the sort of solid evidence Darwin had mustered. This, she did not do.”
Instead, Lewis became what scientists call a “popularizer.” At the 1876 Centennial Exhibition—an event shunned by most scientists—she showed a chart of natural history, together with a wax model, illustrating relations in the animal kingdom. Her materials were displayed in the women’s pavilion, which many visitors likely skipped.
“Ironically, while Mitchell’s scientific work was acceptable to the professionals, it was in fact trivial,” wrote Warner, describing the astronomer as a mere “sweeper of the skies” who executed no sophisticated observing program. “Graceanna, on the other hand, grappled with some of the most interesting and difficult problems of natural history. [But] she was never really accepted as a professional.”
Lewis spent the last years of her life in Media, working as a crusader for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and writing on science for religious journals. “A reasonable acquaintance with the objects of nature,” she wrote in 1901, “may be a fitting preparation for our advancement in eternity.”