Women in Science: Sleuthing out the women who help build the Cowan Tetrapod Collection

Producing a list of all the women who helped build the Beaty Biodiversity Museum natural history collections is an impossible task – yet there are legions of them. Trying to print a list comprised of only white males is equally impossible. Pre-computer donors, collectors, or salvagers names were scribed into leather bound ledgers. To save space, first and middle names were recorded as two initials which erased gender.

Page 151 of the CTC Avian Accessioning Ledger list four M. F. Jackson specimens. If you did not know these people, you would not know who is male or who is female.

Finding M. F. Jackson in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum (BBM) database tells you very little. Is this a person of colour? A first nations contributor? It takes sleuthing to reveal that M. F. Jackson who left a legacy of 133 specimens at the Cowan Tetrapod Collection (CTC) is in fact Mary Fairfield Jackson. The trail often goes cold when searching the web for former UBC graduates students that contributed to the CTC, be they male or female. The more common their names, the harder it is to find them. UBC calendars from 1958- 1966 lists a Miss Mary Jackson as one of the General Zoology 105 Instructors and goes on to state that this Miss Jackson received her Masters at UBC confirming we have the right Mary. When Mary F. Jackson finished her Masters in 1952, the UBC Zoology Department had never granted a female a PhD. This did not happen for another 11 years. Jackson taught at UBC from 1958 until 1990. Though only having a Masters degree, she was promoted to Assistant Professor in 1966. Jackson contributed 38 birds and 95 mammals to the collection.

N. M. McAllister, who contributed a Brewer’s Sparrow and a North American Deermouse to the collection, is none other than Nancy Mahoney McAllister, the first female granted a Doctorate by UBC Zoology. Nancy’s maiden name was Nancy Ann Mahoney. Like the majority of women of her generation, she adopted her husband’s surname but elected to inserted her maiden name into the middle name position. At the time, this was a very ‘modern’ thing to do.

Previously the norm was for a woman to not only adopt her husband’s surname but also his initials making them even harder to find in our specimen ledgers. Today, women generally opt to keep their birth names throughout their careers. Plus, some but not all, scientific journals now print author’s first names in full rather than abbreviated them to initials. Tomorrow, sleuthing today’s BBM female contributors should be easier.

Caption: Portrait of Beatrice M. M. Sprague prior to her marriage. (Photo courtesy of her granddaughter, Rene MacDonald of Quesnel, BC.)

Some women have left such a footprint on our province that uncovering their real names is both fun and rewarding. Mrs. T. L. Thacker is none other than Beatrice Muriel May Sprague. The more you scratch the surface, the more you discover that she was interested in everything. Before Beatrice ventured from her girlhood home in Scotland, she taught herself the common and scientific names of most of the plants, birds and other critters she might see from her train window as she travelled across Canada with a companion to visit her fiancé. Her father had made it a condition of marriage that she visit the small town of Hope, BC and stay at the homestead Thomas Lindsay Thacker was proposing to be their permanent home. Keeping diaries was the norm in 1906, but hers read more like a natural history research journal focusing on the flora and fauna she was seeing. Here is a link compiled by her son, Lindsay Thacker of her intrepid train journey.

After her marriage in 1908, and while carrying out her duties as pioneer homesteader, farmer and mother of four children, the now Mrs. T. L Thacker still had endless energy to pursue her citizen science projects as an amateur naturalist. She did not hesitate to publish her findings many of which were published in The Murrelet, the Society for Northwestern Vertebrate Biology journal.


Mrs. T. L. Thacker with daughter Margaret Ellen on the banks of the Coquihalla River. Note the binoculars. “I remember Grandma wearing her field glasses whenever she was outdoors, ” recalls Rene MacDonald. (Photo courtesy of her granddaughter, Rene MacDonald of Quesnel, BC)

When published in 1948 there was a focus in British Columbia of completing inventories, of doing surveys to find out what lived where in this large province of ours which has so many diverse habitats. Mrs. T. L. Thacker and her husband were in the thick of it.

As B. M. M. Sprague, Beatrice with her father Dr. Thomas B. Sprague published: Notes on the Endomostraca of Mid-Lothian in the Edinburgh Field Naturalists and Microscopical Society Journal in 1901. Page 255 in the same journal volume lists a 2nd publication: List of Fresh Water-Water Crustacea: Collected in Mid-Lothian in the Years 1900 and 1901, and mounted as microscopic objects by Dr and Miss Sprague; and for which the society’s prize, value £5, was awarded on 23rd October 1901. It was not until 1950, when Beatrice published The Murrelet article: Easterly occurrence of the coast Bushtit in British Columbia that once again Beatrice surfaces as B. M. M. Thacker. This was a trail blazing move. Thacker, and women of her generation, were proud to be known by their marital status. This in no way diminished themselves in their eyes. But times were changing and ever a pioneer, she embraced the new, publishing once again as Beatrice; but, she did not relinquish her married surname!

To put this in context, when the young Miss Sprague first came to Canada, women did not have the right to vote. Some provinces started granting some categories of women voting rights prior to 1922 but it was not until this year that black women and white women were eligible to vote in federal elections in all of the Canadian provinces except Quebec. Universal suffrage not only for women but for all Canadians (over the voting age) did not happen until 1960. Beatrice’s 1950 publication on Bushtits was three years before she died in 1953. Thacker was moving with the times.

Photo courtesy of her granddaughter, Rene MacDonald of Quesnel, BC

As a couple, and individually, the Thacker’s corresponded with professions and made donations to what is now the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM) and the then fledgling UBC Zoological Museum. The 1943 RBCM donation records state that Mrs. T. L. Thacker donated four salamanders, one frog and two centipedes that year. In 1946, she donated a Boreal Owl and a Swainson’s Thrush to UBC. Over the years, she donated over a dozen birds and mammals plus one snake (a Rubber Boa) to what is now the Beaty Biodiversity Museum.

Thd Beaty Biodiversity Museum curators cannot produce percentages nor accurately name all the women whom as students, as professionals, as citizen scientist or as good Samaritans, elected to deposit specimens in the UBC collections. Like Mrs. T. L. Thacker, many were true pioneers helping to record, collect, and publish on BC’s immense biodiversity. Work is underway to decode our databases, to replace initials with proper names, to reveal gender and recognize these women. Hard facts, precise percentages do not exist… but, we know they are there.

Click here for more information about Cowan Tetrapod Collection contributors.