In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re taking a closer look at the life and work of some of the women who were important figures in the history of the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Today, we’re taking a look at Elizabeth Emerson Atwater (1812-1878).
Elizabeth Emerson Atwater was born to a wealthy family in Norwich, Vermont on August 8, 1812 and died in Buffalo, New York on April 11, 1878. At her request, most of her personal journals were destroyed when she passed away. However, many of her letters remain and, more importantly, her many and varied scientific collections survive in various institutions, and can be viewed and studied to this day. It is from these records of her life’s activities and her collections that we can understand who Mrs. Atwater was.
At the age of 16, Elizabeth and a friend were sent off together to a boarding school in Troy, New York. It was noted in her obituary that girls were not often afforded such educational opportunities at that time and that Elizabeth made the most of it. She was able to take classes in the sciences, including botany, which proved to be a life-long passion.
In July of 1839, Elizabeth married Samuel T. Atwater of Buffalo, New York and moved there to be with him. They were included among the high society of New York and were frequently invited to “splendid parties at private houses, assemblies, military balls, etc.,” but Elizabeth recorded that she “found no comfort in parties, no good in habitual attendance of them, and so refrained from attendance. Really it is at the sacrifice of every amiable feeling to make one’s toilet at nine o’clock in the evening and proceed to a fashionable party. The necessity of conforming to fashion, which is so fickle and arbitrary, is almost unbearable, and yet one cannot be independent of it, if they mingle in society at all; it is a sorry state of things.”
Despite the fact that she was not a society woman, Elizabeth was a very personable individual and had friends throughout the world who became enthusiastic participants in her enjoyment of nature and other pursuits. She regularly received packages from exotic locales like New Zealand, Italy, and Cuba. So, although she never traveled outside of the U.S., Elizabeth’s collections include objects from around the globe.
In 1856, Elizabeth and Samuel moved to Chicago. It was said that “Here, perhaps, more than anywhere else, she sowed and reaped the richest harvests of her useful life.” Although Mrs. Atwater was “delicate, always hovering on the borders of invalidism” she did considerable good in this city. She was one of the founders for the Home of the Aged in Chicago and one of their most active contributors.
She was also an extremely active member of the new Humane Society, the Chicago Historical Society and the Chicago Academy of Sciences, where she sent many of her scientific specimens. Once she lamented, “Before the Chicago conflagration of 1871, I was the possessor of one of the best individual collections in the whole Northwest—consisting of minerals, fossils, rare Italian Marbles of exceeding beauty, precious stones, curiosities, etc., etc. All were absorbed in the devouring element, save a few boxes placed beyond the limit of the fire. My choicest specimens, at the solicitation of our lamented secretary, Dr. William Stimpson, were temporarily deposited at the Chicago Academy of Sciences—all were lost. I have had but little heart in the work since that terrible night.”
The loss of her collections left her despondent, but her passion was quickly rekindled when Elizabeth visited California in 1873. There she made some of her most important collections. She was astounded by the variety and beauty of the California landscape. She wrote to a friend about a rail trip she took during this time, saying, “took no dinner, but took the time when passengers were eating to secure lovely wildflowers on a plain beyond the track. At suppertime repeated the performance. Some scarlet larkspurs I saw nearly distracted me; I had never even heard of them before.” In all, Elizabeth collected over 2000 specimens during this trip, several of which were new to science. One of these was later identified as a new species of lichen and named in her honor, Bryum atwateriae.
Although Mrs. Atwater loved botany best, she also made contributions to conchology, mineralogy, and paleontology. She willed her remaining scientific collection to the Chicago Academy of Sciences, where they remain today.
Bringing Science Home
Additional Resources & Sources
Explore more of Atwater’s collection
Clemmer, Mary. Memorial Sketch of Elizabeth Emerson Atwater; written for her friends. Buffalo: the Courier Company, Printer, 1879. Available digitally on Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/memorialsketchof00clem