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Mary Jane Rathbun
Zoologist Mary Jane Rathbun (1860-1943) working with crab specimens in the 1930s. Courtesy: Smithsonian Institution Archives

The following article appeared in the Dec 2011/Jan 2012 issue of Chesapeake Bay Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission of the author and Chesapeake Bay Magazine. Images from the Smithsonian Institution Archives (used with permission) and the NEFSC Historic Photo Archives.

Our Lady of Callinectes

She began as a lab volunteer, but Mary Jane Rathbun quickly became a global authority on crustaceans whose name lives on in blue crab taxonomy

By Marty LeGrand

On a summer day in 1883, the U.S. Fish Commission steamer Albatross finished a four-hour dredging run off the coast of Cape Cod. The new flagship of the Commission’s young research fleet, she was a 234-foot, twin-screw vessel built for deep-sea operations. In a nearby bay, her smaller sister, Fish Hawk, also gathered specimens for the agency’s ongoing research.

Built at Pusey & Jones Shipyard in Wilmington, Del., Albatross was the pride of the federal government’s exploration efforts, the first vessel in the world designed expressly for oceanographic research. She held two onboard laboratories, trawl nets and dredges suitable for deep-sea sampling, hydrographic equipment for recording environmental data, Edison electric lamps, freshwater distilling equipment for use on extended ocean expeditions, and a set of brigantine-rigged sails to supplement her very temperamental propulsion sytem—two coal-fired boilers. Over the next four decades, specimens from Albatross and Fish Hawk would help fill the Smithsonian Institution’s natural history exhibits. This being the early days of modern biological science, the deep-sea catch often included strange creatures, never before seen by human eyes—giant glass shrimp, otherworldly jellyfish, king crabs with legs stretching nearly as long as a man’s and bottom-dwelling crabs sporting orangey-red shells and tiny purplish eyes that scarcely moved. Many of these creatures were scientifically unknown and unnamed, taxonomic puzzles to challenge the eminent zoologists who worked onshore at the Commission’s Woods Hole laboratory. 

The Fish Hawk meanwhile, exploring shallower and more familiar waters, turned up a more familiar array of shallow-water finfishes and crustaceans, including the East Coast’s common edible crab. But in the summer of 1883 you wouldn’t have seen the words Calinectes sapidus Rathbun on the list—the name by which we now know the common blue crab of the East Coast. Likely there were plenty of blue crabs in the catch; it’s just that they didn’t go by that name.

Seafood lovers from Nantucket to Key West certainly recognized a blue crab and what to do with one. But late 19th-century zoologists . . . not so much. Believing that the blue crab was the same animal as that harvested in Brazil, the East Indies and even the Eastern Mediterranean, they continued to mistakenly classify the little crustacean, giving it more names than the FBI give protected witnesses. It wasn’t until 1896 that the Chesapeake blue crab got a name that would stick.

fisheries wharf
The research vessels Albatross (right) and Halcyon (renamed Lookout) at the Fish Commission wharf in Woods Hole in 1886. Courtesy: Smithsonian Institution Archives

The woman who would eventually give it the name C. sapidus—and also sort out a lot of the other which-crab-is-which confusion—was working at Woods Hole that summer. But she was hardly established. Barely 23 years old, raised on the shores of Lake Erie, Mary Jane Rathbun was spending her third summer there as a volunteer scientist’s assistant.

She loved the work, sorting and then cataloguing in precise longhand each intriguing creature as it was examined and identified. She stood barely four and a half feet tall. Her long face was rather plain, her chin disappearing into the lacy-collared dresses she often wore. Yet there was something remarkable about her mind. She learned quickly, worked assiduously and blended easily with the laboratory’s visiting scientists and academicians. Her Cape Cod vacations marked the obscure start of an illustrious career for Rathbun, the future Smithsonian zoologist who became her era’s foremost authority on crabs.

In a 50-year career, the scientist who began with only a high-school education expanded the known carcinological (crustacean-studying) universe by more than 1,100 species and subspecies. She published over 150 scientific papers on crabs and crab fossils from every part of the world, including an encyclopedic four-volume monograph on the marine crabs of the Americas. And for 115 years and counting, the blue crab—that staple of summer meals enjoyed from Havre de Grace to Hampton Roads—has carried the moniker of the lady who identified it: Callinectes sapidus Rathbun.

The youngest child of a Buffalo, N.Y., stonemason and his wife, Rathbun was born in 1860, just one year after a British naturalist named Charles Darwin rattled the scientific order with the publication of his On the Origin of Species. Taxonomy, the scientific classification of fauna and flora that became Rathbun’s profession, was forever altered by his concept of natural selection. As a child, the reserved, studious girl showed little interest in the natural world that so captivated the Victorian imagination. Focusing her energies on her English studies, she perfected penmanship and grammar and in high school immersed herself in reading the classics and her beloved Shakespeare.

Richard, her eldest brother, sparked her curiosity about nature, sharing with her the fossils he unearthed while working at their father’s quarries. When Richard chose a career in fisheries science over family stone masonry, “Jen” (as family members called her) joined him at Woods Hole in the summer of 1881. For the first time she got to see the ocean. She also found herself in the right fishing village at the right time.

With its sheltered coves and abundant marine life, Woods Hole was the perfect environment for the Commission’s fish-finding mission. Both the Commission and its research fleet owed their existence to the agency’s larger-than-life leader, Spencer Fullerton Baird, assistant secretary and later secretary of the Smithsonian. The bearded, burly naturalist persuaded the federal government to establish the Fish Commission in 1871 to investigate a decline in New England’s fisheries. In the decade and a half that followed, he cajoled from Congress enough money to build a permanent research facility at Woods Hole, three research ships (each more specialized than its predecessor) and a Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C., that would include marine specimens conveniently amassed on Fish Commission expeditions. Richard Rathbun, who curated the marine collection, eventually oversaw the new U.S. National Museum as well.

The Commission’s senior scientist at Woods Hole, Professor Addison E. Verrill of Yale University, also made advantageous use of expedition collections. Verrill, who sported a dark, Twainesque moustache, studied mollusks. He began an exhaustive study of marine fauna in general and invertebrates in particular that ultimately identified many thousands of new species. His right-hand zoologist, Yale colleague and noted crab expert Sidney Smith, needed all the helpers he could muster at Woods Hole. One of them was Mary Rathbun.

Mary Jane Rathbun
A young Mary Jane Rathbun (in white seated at the front left) with associates Katherine J. Bush, Charlotte Bush and Eloise Edwards at the Woods Hole Laboratory of the US Fish Commission, in 1886. Courtesy: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Baird took note of her unpaid devotion to duty and took her under his wing. In 1884, he arranged a modestly paying clerkship with the Fish Commission, where she organized and catalogued its collections. Two years later she was transferred to the National Museum (predecessor of the National Museum of Natural History). There, the woman with only a high school diploma ascended from Girl Friday in the invertebrates department to become a global authority on crab taxonomy. In that time she was awarded an honorary masters degree from the University of Pittsburgh for her lifetime’s work, and earned a doctorate from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

(Rathbun wasn’t alone in representing her sex. Although women weren’t allowed in the voting booth until 1920, a handful of them—including the “First Lady of Isopods,” Harriet Richardson, and Katherine Bush, Verrill’s invertebrates assistant—earned their place in scientific labs by the late 19th century.)

It was an opportune time to enter the profession. Eager to rival the great collections of the natural history museums of Europe, the U.S. government and private entrepreneurs dispatched expeditions around the globe to gather specimens for study and exhibition. Albatross was one of the busiest.

While many of Rathbun’s colleagues (among them her brother) accompanied the expeditions, she remained at her desk in the museum’s Great Hall, exploring the natural world by cataloguing it. She had an eye for the tiniest anatomical detail: the outline of teeth, the length of an abdominal appendage, the bumpiness of a carapace. She was acquiring a knack for comparative anatomy.

By 1891, Rathbun had begun to publish her findings. To prepare her tenth paper, “The Genus Callinectes,” published in 1896 in the Proceedings of the National Museum, she examined more than 900 crab specimens. In two dozen pages, she put right a century of misconceptions about the genus, a member of the Portunid family of swimming crabs. She began with the most glaring case of mistaken identity, the edible blue crab. Numerous naturalists, building on the work of their predecessors, had attempted to place the familiar crustacean in its rightful family tree. None entirely succeeded.

In 1802, French zoologist Louis-Augustin Bosc provided a reasonably accurate description of the blue crab’s habits and harvesting methods in South Carolina, but in naming and describing it he flubbed his research. He erroneously called it Portunus hastatus (meaning “spear-carrier of the harbor”) and borrowed the description of a European species rather than describing the American crab.

American naturalist Thomas Say offered a better description of the East Coast blue crab itself, but sowed further confusion in 1817 by incorrectly calling the species Lupa hastata (“spear-shaped wolf”), linking it to a Mediterranean crab in another genus.

Frenchman Pierre Latreille named the Eastern blue crab Portunus diacantha (“double-spined guardian of the harbor”) in 1825, but in describing it mixed up four different species under the name.

A Civil War officer, Albert Ordway, began to straighten out the tangled taxonomy in 1863, describing nine species of the recently identified genus Callinectes before the war curtailed his studies. Under Ordway, the blue crab inherited yet another name, Callinectes hastatus (“beautiful swimming spear-carrier”). Rathbun, the National Museum’s then junior curator of invertebrates, ended once and for all what one modern-day carcinologist called “the game of taxonomic musical chairs.”

“I have changed the name Callinectes hastatus to Callinectes sapidus and have added a new subspecies, C. sapidus acutidens,” Rathbun wrote, reserving C. sapidus (sapidus meaning “savory”) for the common East Coast blue crab and acutidens (“sharp teeth”) for the subspecies found in Central and South America. In addition, she named a total of 13 other species found in the western Atlantic, eastern Pacific and the eastern Atlantic off the African coast.

Rathbun corresponded with many amateur as well as professional naturalists, and three of the former contributed notes to her Callinectes paper, casting new light on the surprisingly understudied blue crab.

Rathbun’s revisions of Callinectes have been modified since (including changes of her own), but they’ve largely stood the test of time. In 1964, nearly two decades after her death, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature decreed in the name of scientific clarity that Callinectes sapidus Rathbun would henceforth be the genus’s prototypical species.

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Rathbun continued to publish and to raise the department’s stature into the new century. Her starting annual salary (about the cost of an iPad 2 today) rose slowly with her increased responsibilities, hitting a ceiling of $1,800. By 1914, eager to publish the wealth of data she’d accumulated on American marine crabs, she saw the need for an assistant at the department. Unfortunately, the budget-conscious Smithsonian did not. So on Dec. 31 she wrote a brief letter of resignation and had her entire salary applied to the hiring of a promising young zoologist, Waldo Schmitt. The following workday she reported to her desk as usual and continued to work—without pay—as an honorary research associate in zoology for the next 25 years before failing health ended her career.

So Rathbun ended her career as she began it: working for love and not money. She lived modestly on her savings and a small inheritance from her father. She died in 1943 at her home in Georgetown of complications from a broken hip. In addition to her library of books on crustaceans, Rathbun, who never married, left the Smithsonian $10,000 in memory of her brother Richard, who died in 1918 of heart disease after contracting yellow fever in Brazil. (Her fund has since grown more than tenfold and is used to further crustacean research.)

Today, half of the crustacean species known worldwide are represented in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, the Beaux Arts building whose design and construction her brother supervised a century ago. Mary Rathbun was instrumental in helping to fill it. “She was very well known around the world; other scientists sent her specimens,” says Rafael Lemaitre, a research zoologist in the museum’s Department of Invertebrate Zoology. “She built on the collections that way. Just by sitting here.”

Her high school English studies also served her well. Congratulating Rathbun on her “monumental publication on the Spider Crabs of North America” in 1925, a professor at Oxford University’s zoological museum in Cambridge, England, wrote: “We feel here that you are one worker who is absolutely clear as to what you mean.”

Lemaitre attributes Rathbun’s success to “tremendous observation skills” that enabled her to recognize new genera and species among the multitude of specimens at her disposal. “[Her classifications] are still the pillars of our understanding of crab fauna. She also laid the foundation for the study of fossil marine and freshwater crabs.”

Although soft-spoken and famously charitable, Rathbun was quick to correct a colleague or defend her favorite fauna. “It is a pleasure to learn that invertebrates are being accorded so much recognition at your institution for here there is no space to spare for the exhibit of such lowly creatures,” she once wrote a colleague at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Visitors won’t find the names of Rathbun and her contemporaries on the Natural History Museum’s blue crab exhibit in Ocean Hall or the fossilized crustaceans that occupy a niche in its Ancient Seas room. Appropriately enough, evidence of their pioneering work is kept behind the scenes in a secure, climate-controlled storage pod at the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md. (A facility vastly improved from the National Museum’s dimly lit storage cellar where Rathbun used to noisily announce her presence, “else the rats would jump out upon me.”)

In Suitland, Pod 5’s towering metal racks hold the natural history “wet collections,” millions of bleached-white specimens preserved in vintage jars collected by Albatross, Fish Hawk and famous turn-of-the-20th-century expeditions. The labels on literally thousands of these jars bear the scientific names that Mary Rathbun first gave them, written ever so neatly in her perfect grammar-school script.

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