The gendered history of the Arnold Arboretum

October 22, 2013

Dr Hu at Harvard 1987

The gendered history of the Arnold Arboretum

Dr. Shiu-Ying Hu

Dr. Shiu-Ying Hu at Harvard University, 1987.

Displays in the Visitor Center at the Arnold Arboretum read like a historical timeline of distinguished men who made the institution what it is today. Portraits of figures such as the Arboretum’s Founding Director, Charles Sprague Sargent, and the famous collector of East Asian and North American plants, E. H. Wilson, grace the walls alongside tales of their daring voyages and botanical accomplishments. But where are the women in the history of this living museum?

A special exhibit opening this November brings the stories of four female historical figures of the Arnold Arboretum to the Visitor Center: Dr. Shiu-Ying Hu, Constance Tortorici Derderian, Beatrix Farrand, and Susan Delano McKelvey. Dr. Shiu-Ying Hu (1910-2012) was a former Emeritus Senior Research Fellow at the Arnold Arboretum. From 1946 to 1949, Shiu-Ying Hu studied in America, pursuing a PhD in botany. She was, in fact, the first Chinese woman to ever receive a doctoral degree in botany from Harvard University, even though she was told that “Harvard didn’t take girls.” Shortly after graduating, she was hired to work at the Arnold Arboretum. During an interview about those early days, Hu said that “at that time, racial and sexual discrimination was very heavy, so my salary was about the same as a janitor’s,” but she nevertheless felt very passionate about “working for Chinese botany.” In the 1950s, one of Hu’s first projects at the Arboretum involved compiling content for the Flora of China project, and creating a card-catalogue consisting of 158,844 index cards of Chinese plant names.

Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959) was a famous early landscape architect whose notable commissions include Dumbarton Oaks and the National Cathedral in Washington DC. She began her career at the Arnold Arboretum, studying many years under the direction of C. S. Sargent. He launched Farrand’s career in the 1890s, providing her with a good recommendation whenever possible and helping her overcome many professional barriers that she faced because of her gender. She was eventually appointed as Consultant Landscape Gardener at the Arboretum when she was 75 years old, serving from 1946 to 1950.

Susan Adams Delano McKelvey (1883-1964) also studied landscape gardening with Sargent after 1920, working at the Arboretum washing clay pots and weeding plants as she learned her new trade. McKelvey’s favorite plants were lilacs and yuccas, although she also reported that she was also “a cactus enthusiast—and an agave one.” Early in her career in the Arboretum, she was especially interested in lilacs at a time when the lilac collection was just under development. She wrote The Lilac: A Monograph in 1928, a popular book that sold exceedingly well and won many awards. She also spent many years travelling to the US Southwest (especially Nevada, Arizona, California, and New Mexico) studying yucca plants and their relatives. McKelvey’s masterpiece was a magnificently large book entitled The Botanical Exploration of the Trans-Mississippi West 1790-1850.

Constance Tortorici Derderian (1921-1988) was a leading expert and promoter of subtropical bonsai in the Northeast US. She took the first bonsai course the Brooklyn Botanic Garden ever offered in 1954, and worked with Frank Okamura, Kan Yashiroda, Lynn Perry, and other leading bonsai specialists in New York. She also studied with Kyuzo Murata in Japan in 1967. Derderian was guest editor of the BBG’s Bonsai for Indoors Handbook (1976), and a founding member of the American Bonsai Society in 1967, which she also directed for many years. She received the Gold Medal from The Massachusetts Horticultural Society for her outstanding work in bonsai in 1979. Derderian also taught bonsai classes at the Arboretum many years before she curated the Larz Andersen Bonsai Collection. The bonsai collection was greatly revitalized under her care between 1969 and 1984, and would probably not exist today without her efforts at reviving the plants.

These are only four figures among so many women who have worked and continue to work at the Arboretum today, making significant contributions. I chose these four women because of their fascinating life stories, the ways that they challenged and subverted gendered conventions of their day in the fields of botany and exploration, their substantial contributions to these fields, and because they are an inspiration to women everywhere, past and present. Hopefully this exhibit will educate visitors about how women have helped shape the Arboretum and its mission, and in doing so, lend them a more visible presence in our history.

Miranda Mollendorf, Library Intern

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