Distinguished Women of Past and Present


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Mary Agnes Meara Chase

From: United States: Illinois
Fields: Agriculture and Horticulture, Art, Biology, Human Rights
Key Words/Phrases: botanist, illustrator, women's rights activist
The botanist Mary Agnes Meara Chase was born in 1869 in Iroquois County, Illinois, U.S.A. to Martin J. Meara and Mary Brannick Meara. Her father, a railroad engineer from Tipperary, Ireland, died when Agnes was only two years old. The rest of the family moved to Chicago and, as soon as she was out of the elementary school, Agnes started working to help her mother support the family. As a teenager she worked at a newspaper as a typesetter and a proofreader. In 1888, she married William Ingraham Chase, the editor of the School Herald, but he died less than a year later.

Chase became interested in botany and started collecting the flora of northern Illinois. Rev. Ellsworth Hill, a bryologist (specializing in mosses), hired her as an illustrator and she contributed to two Field Museum of Natural History publications. In 1903, she obtained a position as an illustrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Bureau of Plant Industry in Washington, D.C. Her new salary was $720 per year. She began a 30-year collaboration with a grass specialist, Albert Spear Hitchcock. When Hitchcock left in 1936, Chase took his place as a senior botanist. During her work at the Bureau, she made great contibutions to the study of grasses (agrostology) and her work had important applications for agriculture. She collected over 4,500 specimens from Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the U.S. and later donated her collections to the Smithsonian and the National Herbarium. She was active well into her senior years and went on a field trip to Venezuela when she was in her seventies.

Chase was also very active politically. She was a passionate suffragist who was jailed and force-fed when she went on a hunger strike. She supported the Prohibition and made generous donations to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the NAACP, the National Women's Party, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

Mary Agnes Meara Chase died in 1963 at a nursing home in Bethesda, Maryland.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1998.

The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Healers and Scientists by Brooke Bailey, Bob Adams, Inc., Publishers, 1994


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