Sunday, April 5, 2015

Women Scientists Start Esperanto Group

Margaret Henderson
The April 5, 1906 San Francisco Call article on an Esperanto group at the University of California, Berkeley, says more the role of women in science in the early twentieth century than it intends to, and less about the Esperanto group than I’d prefer. The article tells us that the group included “a number of faculty people and others connected with the university,” but doesn’t give any hint as to how large that number is, or who the other people might be. It also gives short shrift to the accomplishments of one of the women involved.

The article also makes a whopper of an error, which I am leaving in place. Once, I’d call it a typographical error, and just quietly replace it, but as it occurs twice, it’s clear that it was the author’s intention, and so I’ll side with the writer for the Call, even though he or she is completely wrong. You’ll see.

The article is dwarfed by the picture of Margaret Henderson, which fills in between the headline and the text of the article. I wish they had had an image of Alice Robertson, since I was not able to find any images of her. She is somewhat overshadowed by a woman with nearly the same name, Alice Mary Robertson, who was born somewhat before our Esperantist and managed to outlive her. Alice Mary Robertson was the second woman to hold a seat in Congress (there are plenty of pictures of her). I’ll get to our Esperantist soon.

I’ve noticed that the photo that Margaret Henderson supplied was the same one that appeared in the 1903 Blue and Gold, the University of California yearbook in the year she received a B.S. in Biology. By the time of the article, it was three years old.

[see image at left]
New Universal Language to be Studied.
BERKELEY, April 4.—Prominent women associated with the faculty of the University of California have organized a club, called the Esperanto Club, for the study and promotion of the new universal languages with that name. Miss A. Robertson, an assistant in the department of zoology, has been elected president, and Miss Margaret Henderson, an assistant to Dr. A. R. Ward, acting as a bacteriologist, is secretary. The membership includes a number of faculty people and others connected with the university.

Esperanto was invented by Dr. L. L. Tamenhoff of Warsaw, Poland. Its simplicity and apparent adaptability to all nations’ purposes have impressed the university folk, who are enthusiastic over its possibilities. It promises to be the one big, successful fad among the cultured ones of the university town this season. 
Dr. Tamenhoff clams that his Esperanto product is not calculated to displace the idioms of any language or nation, but to provide a second language, which all can adopt, and still use their mother tongue. By the aid of an Esperanto key, anything written in Esperanto can be quickly and easily translated. The grammar can be learned in an hour. There are no exceptions to its rules, as in other languages.
Tamenhoff? Okay, they got the name wrong. Zamenhof (although many sources of the period transliterated the name “Samenhof,” occasionally with another f.)

Was Miss Henderson just “acting as a bacteriologist,” or was she actually doing work in bacteriology? Henderson was a bacteriologist. Henderson was a native of Peoria, born in 1882, who had come to Berkeley to study biology. After getting her degree, she worked for a few years as an instructor. In 1911, she married, leaving California. After she married, her profession is listed as “none” on the census. She and her husband had four children. She does not appear to have continued an interest in Esperanto after her marriage.

The president of the club, Alice Robertson, was a student of William Emerson Ritter, whose wife, Dr. Mary Bennett Ritter, was a proponent of women’s education. Dr. Ritter provided free examinations to women, because of a university rule that women had to have physician approval before they could use the gymnasium, a rule that did not apply to men. Professor Ritter was the founder of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Among the many scientists who have done research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is Alice Robertson, Ph.D.

I could refer to Robertson as Dr. Robertson, but it would be more appropriate to refer to her as Professor Robertson. Robertson was born in 1859, and so was about forty-seven when she started the Esperanto club (as compared to Henderson’s 24 years). After her work at the University of California, where she specialized in the biology of bryozoa, she accepted a position in the department of Zoology and Physiology at Wellesley College. Unfortunately, during the years that Professor Robertson was chair of the Department of Zoology and Physiology, Legenda, the Wellesley yearbook, did not include photographs of department chairs, as they did in other years. (It does note that Robertson was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.) The book Ladies in the Laboratory notes that Professor Robertson taught at Wellesley from 1906 to 1919.

There was a bit of drama that no scientist would want to share during her time at Wellesley. According to The Story of Wellesley, a fire broke out on the campus on March 17, 1914. Although no lives were lost, much property and scientific research was:
Professor Robertson, the head of the department, who is an authority on certain deep-sea forms of life, had just finished her report on the collections from the dredging expedition of the Prince of Monaco, which had been sent her for identification; and the report and the collections all were lost.
It is not clear that Professor Robertson continued in Esperanto after her 1906 experience. She doesn’t seem to have started a group at Wellesley. This article seems to be her one recorded connection with the language. Wellesley would later do a study on language learning in which Esperanto played a part, although by that point, Professor Robertson had retired. She moved back to California, where she died in 1922.
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