Saturday, January 9, 2021

Paleontologist Ruth Gillespie Browne


I live near outcrops of the Ordovician Period Bardstown Reef fossil beds. During 2008-2009, I collected a number of fossil coral specimens and researched more about them. The name of a local scientist appeared during my quest which was Ruth Browne. Unfortunately, I could not talk to her about my finds as she had passed away in 1999 at the age of 94.

An item I believe is missing from the Internet is the lack of a record of women in the geological sciences from the 19th and early 20th century. A remedy to this is to publish some information to help with this situation. Using public records and some Internet databases, I was able to find out more about this Louisville area paleontologist.

Early Life

Ruth F. Gillespie was born on July 28, 1905 in Syracuse, New York. Her mother Ella M. Gillespie (1880-1963) was a housewife. Ruth's father Robert M. Gillespie (1877-1935) was telecommunications engineer. In the early 1920s, Western Electric sent him to Sweden to install a phone system between Stockholm and another city. Ruth and her family applied for passports in 1921 for a 1922 trip to stay with him in Europe. She attended high school in Scandinavian countries where her father worked. Above is a re-touched 1921 passport records image. It appears she, her mother and sister sailed on the SS Stockholm to Europe in July 1922 and returned on the SS Lapland from Southhampton, England (August 11, 1922) to New York City (August 19, 1922).


Ruth graduated from Cornell University in 1929 with a bachelor's and master's degrees in geology with emphasis on paleontology. She had a younger sister Helen E. Gillespie (1907-1983) who graduated from Cornell University with a degree in architecture.


She married James Gunn Browne (1905-1995) on August 30, 1930 in Syracuse New York. Below is a picture of James from his 1922 Charlottesville High School (Virginia) year book. Mr. Browne eventually lived in Louisville, Kentucky where he was treasurer in 1948 at Whayne Supply (construction equipment supplier). He was elected to their board of directors in June 1953 and stepped down as their secretary-treasurer in 1969. He would later retire from there as Vice President and  Finance Director in 1970 [source: Building on a Century of Commitment: A History of Whayne Supply Company by Carl E. Kramer Sunnyside Press, 2013]. From best I can tell, after she got married, they lived in Virginia and she raised two children.

Life in Louisville

Later the family moved to Louisville (maybe in the mid to late 1940s). The first instance of her mentioned is in the Courier Journal newspaper database on October 10, 1954 in an article entitled 'Creature Meets Critter At Wildlife Meet' by Kent Previette. It shows a picture of Ruth G. Browne holding a black pilot snake while two other women observe. The caption identifies her as head of the Ohio Falls Chapter of Kentucky Society of Natural History. The article states the society is one of the sponsors of the three-day 15th Annual Wildlife and Natural History Conference.

The next entry in the newspaper database is from October 5, 1961 showing Mrs. Ruth Browne (geologist and director or Kentucky Society for Natural History) leading the 4th grade class of St. Matthews Elementary School on a fossil hunt at the quarry at Brownsboro Road and Hubbards Lane. The police later ended the event citing child safety at the quarry as an issue.

The Courier Journal article from January 28, 1968 profiled her in their Woman in the News column entitled 'Her Museum Cause Is a Site' by Yvonne Eaton (1935-2005). The article mostly centers on the controversy of where Louisville's Museum on Natural History should be located. She favored the site at the Ben H. Collings estate at Newburg Road and Trevillan Way as opposed to downtown site or or the campus of the University of Louisville. It eventually was located downtown where the Kentucky Science Center is now (727 W. Main Street, Louisville). In the article she is identified as a board member of the Louisville Natural History Museum, Inc. and a former teacher at the University of Louisville and a former president of the Ohio Falls Chapter, Kentucky Society of Natural History. The article says she "attributes her love of the outdoors to weekend outdoor trips on which her father took the family. She say that she was taken in a basket even before she could walk to a secluded summer camp which her family owned in the Adirondacks."
Mrs. Browne is quoted in the article, "Geology has just been an interest with me. I think, why do I stay home and work with these bugs. But I enjoy it. I'm not a socialite. It's not that I don't like people. But it's that I feel I can contribute in this way. I have compulsion. I can't explain it. I feel there isn't enough time."

In 1973, she and Dr. Erwin Robert Pohl (1904-1973) of Horse Cave, Kentucky named a fossil foraminifera genus Tubispirodiscus found in the Fraileys facies of the Big Clifty Formation (Chesterian) of central Kentucky.

The Paleontological Research Institution of Ithaca, New York list her has a Trustee from 1976 to 1981. Ruth Browne wrote a number of letters to the editors of the Courier Journal which got published. If not writing about the Louisville museum, the letters were in tribute to people she was associated: Carlyle Chamberlain (1969), Leonard Brecher (1976), and Robert Paul (1982).

In 1981, she testified a U.S. Congressional committee about the importance of preserving and protecting the Falls of the Ohio River area (it is now an Indiana State Park). Public law 97-137 TITLE II - FALLS OF THE OHIO NATIONAL WILDLIFE CONSERVATION AREA approved December 29, 1981.

The last newspaper database entry that mentions her while alive was from July 22, 1991 Courier-Journal article 'WORK OF ART Terry Chase tells nature's story though museum exhibits' by Linda Stahl. In the article,  Ruth Browne is identified as a board member of the Louisville Nature and Conservation Center. She and other board members traveled to Chase Studio, a 125 acres of woods next to a national forest 30 miles east of Branson, Missouri. They were looking at exhibit developer's work on three projects: planned Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center, the Nature and Conservation Center to be constructed at Joe Creason Park in Louisville, and the American Cave and Karst Center at Horse Cave, Kentucky.


Before her death she made a large financial contribution and donated a number of her books to the Falls of the Ohio State Park. Browne's fossil collection and library were donated to the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca (now "Museum of the Earth"). She also donated money to the Nature Conservancy and Cornell University in her will. The available literature paints a picture of a very talented and generous person.  The Museum of the Earth database shows a number of specimen donations attributed to her.  

I am grateful she published her coral research as it helped with identification of the eastern Louisville fossils found. In addition, after reviewing newspaper articles and letters to editor over the decades she lived in Louisville, it shows she was a dedicated advocate for museum for natural history and science and other nature centers in the Louisville area.


Below are list of some of her publications from 1958 to 1977.

Sedimentation and stratigraphy of the Silurian and Devonian rocks in the Louisville area, Kentucky (Roadlog for Geological Society of Kentucky 1958 Field Excursion), by Ruth Browne and others, 1958, 46 p. ?

Wisconsin molluscan faunas from Jefferson County, Kentucky by Ruth G. Browne and D.E. McDonald in Bulletins of American Paleontology No. 189 (August 5, 1960), 24 pp., 4 plates [LINK]

Arenaceous Foraminifera from the Osgood Formation at Osgood Indiana by Ruth G. Browne and Virginia J. Schott in Bulletins of American Paleontology, volume 46, number 209 (July 1963), pp. 187-243. [LINK]

Smaller Paleocene Foraminifera from Reidland, Kentucky by Ruth G. Browne and Stephen M. Herrick in Bulletins of American Paleontology, volume 46, number 210 (August 23,1963), pp. 247-285. [LINK] [In this paper, L.M.  MacCary geologist at U.S. Geological Survey and Nat Dortch geologist at Paducah Junior College, Kentucky supplied Ruth Browne fossils in March 1960. The authors later thank Bruce Chang of Louisville Kentucky for illustrations of fauna and Dr. James E. Conkin (1924-2017) geologist at the University of Louisville for loan of literature.]

The Coral Horizons and Stratigraphy of the Upper Richmond Group in Kentucky West of the Cincinnati Arch by Ruth G. Browne in Journal of Paleontology, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Mar., 1964), pp. 385-392 published by: SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology [In this paper she thanks Virginia Schott and  the curator of the University of Louisville Geology museum Donald McDonald. Dr. Kenneth E. Caster, professor of Geology at the University of Cincinnati reviewed her paper.]

Some Upper Cincinnatian (Ordovician) Colonial Corals of North-Central Kentucky by Ruth G. Browne in Journal of Paleontology, Vol. 39, No. 6 (Nov., 1965), pp. 1177-1191. [In this paper she thanks Mrs. Virginia Schott and  Mr. Donald McDonald in aiding in the collection of fossils. Dr. Thomas G. Perry of Indiana University for preparing thin sections. Dr. John W. Wells of Cornell University for manuscript review. Charles Stone of Lexington, Kentucky made the photographs. Special thanks to Dr. Rousseau Flower of the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources for loan of coral fossils from Montoya New Mexico.]

Foraminifera of the Fraileys Member (Upper Mississippian) of Central Kentucky by E. Robert Pohl, Ruth G. Browne, James R. Chaplin in Journal of Paleontology, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Mar., 1968), pp. 581-582

Wisconsin molluscan faunas from Henderson County, Kentucky by Ruth G. Browne and P.M. Bruder in  Bulletins of American Paleontology No. 241 (June 3, 1968), 85 pp., 3 plates [LINK]

Plant Fossils from the St. Louis Formation in Kentucky by Ruth G. Browne and Albert L. Bryant in Journal of Paleontology, Vol. 44, No. 3 (May, 1970), pp. 520-521

Misassignment of Silurian Gastropod Protoconch Casts to Taxa of Foraminifera by Ruth G. Browne in Journal of Paleontology, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Jan., 1971), p. 141 [Correction of paper she published in 1963 where she mis-identified foraminfera fossils as snail protoconch casts.]

Stratigraphy and genera of calcareous Foraminifera of the Fraileys Facies (Mississippian) of central Kentucky. by Ruth G. Browne and E. Robert Pohl in Bulletins of American Paleontology No. 280 (December 13, 1973), 76 pp., 10 plates. [LINK]

The Archaediscidae of the Fraileys Facies (Mississippian) of central Kentucky by Ruth G. Browne, J.W. Baxter, and T.G. Roberts in Bulletins of American Paleontology No. 298 (October 24, 1977), 62 pp., 4 plates [LINK]