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One female scientist was closely associated with my father-in-law, Coleman Goin.  Like him, her main interest was frogs. I am talking about Doris Mabel Cochran, who was one of the few women in herpetology during the 20th Century.

Doris Mabel (sometimes apparently spelled "Mable") Cochran was born in North Girard, Pennsylvania, on May 18, 1898. She was hired in 1919 at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as an aid to Leonhard Stejneger in the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians. She stayed at the aid level even after receiving her A.B. and M.S. degrees from George Washington University in 1920 and 1921, respectively, followed by a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in 1933. She was raised to the then level P-3 (from P-2) in 1941, but should have been P-5 when she became acting head in 1943 after Stejneger died. This led to a multi-year battle to get a promotion, despite being named acting head of the division in 1943 and being supported in her efforts by her supervisor Waldo Schmitt. She finally won in 1966 by being appointed to the new ranking system GS-13, but was only given the title Systematic Zoologist, not Curator, which she had been for years!  The promotion was short lived because Cochran was forced under Smithsonian policy to retire at her 70th birthday (she actually retired on April 30) and she died 4 days after her birthday!

With 90 taxonomic publications describing eight new genera and 125 species and subspecies, and including major studies on the frogs of Hispaniola (she made two trips to Haiti to collect material), Brazil, and Colombia (last published posthumously with my father-in-law), plus two popular books, Cochran would almost certainly have been promoted to Curator if she had not been female. Several higher level administrators gave her bad marks for working in foreign countries (actually this should have been a point in her favor) and not getting all her identifications correct (according to them.)  However, her male colleagues, including my father-in-law, who published with her several times, had a high regard for her work. Administration ignored their letters of support.

Cochran, in addition to being female, was in a field of science, taxonomy, that is often not highly regarded.  Taxonomy is the description and naming of species or larger groups. Naming and description are important as it makes it possible to identify specimens. Systematics involves the arrangement of named organisms into a hierarchy of relatedness. The terms are often used interchangeably as they are intimately related. As a taxonomist myself I understand the difficulties involved. Often referred to as "stamp collecting" taxonomy and systematics are basic to our understanding of the biological world and are now quite sophisticated. As I found out early in my career, the correct determination of a species is vital to biological control, IPM, medical research, ecology, conservation, and behavioral studies, among others.  When I was at the University of Arizona a student brought me the crabs he had collected in the Gulf of California during his studies of blue crab circadian activity.  He was puzzled because he had three peaks of activity, something that had not been recorded for Callinectes bellicosus, the species he was studying. I cleared up the problem almost immediately - he had three species of crabs in two genera, only one of which was the species on which he was supposed to be working!

Cochran did leave a great legacy of very necessary research on frogs, many of which are disappearing from our planet. Her reward was not adequate, but she now serves as an inspiration for women who would be involved in taxonomic studies, despite all the difficulties involved. Her name does now appear after numerous Latin designations for Neotropical frogs and stands as a monument to this woman who persisted at the Smithsonian for nearly 50 years, despite all.

Internet References:

Brief Notes on the not so Brief Career of Doris Cochran. http://nmnh.typepad.com/...

Doris Mable Cochran Papers 1891-1968. http://siarchives.si.edu/...

Doris Mable Cochran http://en.wikipedia.org/...

Women in Science, Historical Edition:  Doris Cochran's Struggle for Promotion at the Smithsonian. http://cluttermuseum.blogspot.com/...


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Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Tue Mar 12, 2013 at 04:54 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science, SciTech, Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism, and Community Spotlight.

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