Marguerite O’Loghlin Crowe steps from the shadows

Update: Additional images provided by Alice Zent at the end of the post!

Some five years ago, I shared an intriguing anecdote from the biography of Albert A. Michelson, in which Michelson — who had a reputation of being incredibly difficult to work with — began a friendship and tutelage of a talented young woman in physics, “Margarite O’Laughlin Crowe.”  The snippet from the biography is reproduced in its entirety below.

Upon resuming his classes after his return from Sweden, Michelson became aware of a girl in one of them. As a rule his students were male. As Edna [his second wife] had implied in their first conversation, he had never been much impressed with female students. They tended to radiate an earnest air which his generation did not associate with feminine charm, or they became hysterical during the Friday recitation and burst into tears. But Margarite O’Laughlin Crowe was an exception. Their friendship began when he caught her toasting marshmallows over her Bunsen burner in the laboratory. In his most severe tone he told her that the penalty was a fine of two golden-brown marshmallows which she must bring to his office at teatime. After the ice was broken she grew bolder. On St. Valentine’s Day, Michelson walked into Ryerson to find his name plaque decorated with hearts and cupids. Margarite Crowe had arranged a party. Fred and Julius Pearson had helped her trim the somber hall with red and white twisted streamers. Michelson relaxed his usual severity and joined in, even managing to drink with apparent relish the sweet punch she had concocted.

Not long after the party he heard that Margarite’s mother, with whom she had been living, had died rather suddenly, and that Margarite was thinking of giving up her career in physics. Sending for her immediately, he counseled her against such action. He suggested a change in her studies, advising her to go to Yerkes Observatory to work under the supervision of his friend Edwin Frost. He showed her a stellar map and suggested a part of the sky that might interest her. This was a turning point for Margarite, who later made some original scholarly contributions. In the spring after her graduation, she came to Michelson’s office to say good-by. As a keepsake he gave her the broken fragment of the grating that he had used at his Nobel lecture.

I found this description really charming, and it highlighted something I’ve noticed time and again: even when women were for the most part not taken seriously in physics, the smartest scientists knew better, and supported that often ignored talent.

At the time, I was unable to find any further information about “Margarite,” leaving me to wonder what happened to her. About a week ago, though, I was contacted by Alice Zent, a descendant of Crowe’s, who filled in a lot of information about her Great Aunt!  With her permission, I share below her comments on my blog as well as a few documents that show what an exceptional career Marguerite O’Loghlin Crowe¹ had.

Alice’s first comment is below!

The reason you can’t find anything about Ms. Crowe is because her name is not spelled correctly. Her name was Marguerite O’Loghlin Crowe, and she was my Great Aunt. I have only recently begun researching her myself, but I have discovered that she almost always published her scholarly papers using her initials “M. O’L. Crowe”, for no doubt pretty obvious reasons. After completing her Bachelors of Science degree from the University of Chicago, it appears that she taught school for a few years in Norfolk, Virginia, and then she went to McGill University to possibly teach, but also study for a Masters Degree in Science. After being awarded her Master’s Degree, she went to work for Augustus Wadsworth at the New York State Department of Health in Albany, New York.

At Wadsworths’ lab in Albany, Marguerite experimented with single slice chromatography, and in 1941 published a pamphlet describing a technique she had refined that became the industry standard. Unfortunately, since she only used her initials in her published papers, she has gone down in the history of chromatography as a he, not a she.

While she was employed at NYSDH, Marguerite was invited to go to Siberia in 1936 with a Harvard – M. I. T. Expedition to observe a solar eclipse and “find a solution of the “coronium mystery”. I don’t know how she came to be selected to join this expedition, but I suspect that in addition to specialized knowledge of physics gained while a student of Michelson, she was an expert at operating the “most sensitive scientific equipment” that was reported to have been taken on this expedition.

If you google “M. O’L. Crowe”, you will get quite a few hits on scientific papers that she co-wrote with Augustus Wadsworth and other scientists at NYSDH. I am not a scientist, so I would appreciate any information that you could give me about these papers if they are significant.

Also, I have found online a letter that she wrote to Albert Einstein in 1947 in response to his plea to raise money to educate the American public about the peaceful uses of atomic energy.

Aside from her sister Helen, my Mother was Marguerite’s only surviving relative when she died. I have heard from my Mother that she did work at Yerkes Observatory, but I am not able to confirm that in my research. I also have it on good authority that she traveled on many expeditions to observe astronomical events, and that she was once trapped behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe where she had gone to observe a solar eclipse, and so became the first woman to ride the Berlin airlift, but I haven’t yet been able to confirm that either.

I know she was held in very high esteem by Augustus Wadsworth, and when he retired, he gave her his microscope. And like Michelson, Marguerite was a talented painter and spent her vacations painting in Ireland. I have quite a few of her paintings hanging in my house.

After she retired from NYSDH, Marguerite became an Assistant Professor of Engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville. While there she did applied research to discover if there was enough titanium in sand to make it worthwhile to extract.

Really neat! I’ve included a couple of related links in the quote.

Alice’s second comment is below:

One other little hearsay anecdote that I would like to share about Marguerite. My Mother tells me that when Marguerite arrived at McGill University, there was no women’s restroom in the observatory, and so they had one installed for Marguerite. By contrast, I am told that Marguerite once sought admittance to the Vatican Observatory as a member of a scientific delegation visiting Rome, but they refused to allow her in because – woman!

Sadly, this latter observation is unsurprising — there were many obstacles to being a scientist as a woman in that era.  Arguably, many of those obstacles still remain.

In a follow-up email, Alice sent me copies of Marguerite’s CV and some letters written in support of her.  I attach these below in pdf form.  The CV does confirm that Marguerite worked at Yerkes Observatory with its director, Dr. E.B. Frost, from 1909-1910.

Marguerite O’L. Crowe’s CV

Support letters

What we see in these descriptions, and letters, is a remarkable scientist who accomplished great things in science and displayed incredible bravery and boldness!  (See, for instance, her trip to Siberia and being trapped behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe mentioned above.)

So why is information about her so hard to find?  Part of the answer is that most scientists in history have little written about them for posterity.  Though Marguerite should have stood out as a woman doing incredible work in a male-dominated field, most people probably did not realize (as Alice noted) that she was a woman!

I’m really happy to see Alice’s efforts to shine more light on Marguerite O’Loghlin Crowe’s exceptional career.  She has a few photos of Marguerite and has offered to scan them, which I will happily post!

We can help, too: I am not terribly familiar with chromatography, but if any of my readers can comment on the impact of Marguerite’s work in this post, it would be appreciated.  If anyone can shed more light on any other aspects of her life and work, please let us know!

Thanks again to Alice Zent for sharing this with us!

Update: Alice provided a few additional links and images that help fill in Marguerite’s life and work.  First, an image of a letter she wrote to Einstein in support of attempts to push for peaceful uses of atomic energy.

Letter from Marguerite O'Loghlin Crowe to Albert Einstein, 1947.  Via the LIbrary at Oregon State.

Letter from Marguerite O’Loghlin Crowe to Albert Einstein, 1947. Via the Library at Oregon State.

Next, we have an image of Crowe from her time at the University of Florida.

Marguerite O'Loghlin Crowe, from her later years in Florida.  Via the George A. Smathers Libraries Digital Collections.

Marguerite O’Loghlin Crowe, from her later years in Florida. Via the George A. Smathers Libraries Digital Collections.

Finally, a rare image directly from Alice Zent, of Crowe’s 1928 passport photo.

Crowe's 1928 passport, courtesy of Alice Zent.

Crowe’s 1928 passport, courtesy of Alice Zent.

A sincere thanks again to Alice for providing this information and permission to use the documents in her possession!


¹ As I’ve noted in a previous post, I generally try and avoid the double standard of referring to scientific women by their first names and scientific men by their surnames.  Here I refer to Ms. Crowe as “Marguerite,” following the convention used by Alice as well as Dorothy Michelson.

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