Monday, February 27, 2023

A Romance in Natural History: The Lives and Works of Amadeus Grabau and Mary Antin

Back in March 2021, the book A Romance in Natural History: The Lives and Works of Amadeus Grabau and Mary Antin was acquired from It was hoped that it would help with my research on Elvira Wood (1865-1928). While she is not mentioned in it, a fascinating story about the two people that are subjects of this book are. The book showed me new research directions on geological subjects, and I am so glad that I read it.

The author Allan Mazur, a professor at Syracuse University, has done an excellent job researching the lives of Mary Antin (1881-1949) and Amadeus Grabau (1870-1946). He explains in the preface that his wife is related to Grabau. In the late 1990s, he was researching material for a book about pollution at Love Canal, New York, when he came across Grabau's book on geology of Niagara Falls from 1901. As it turns out, Allan had found a person to write about for another book, which he published in 2004. As he states in the preface, Mary Antin was nationally famous author and lecturer in the early 1900s while "Amadeus's personal life was 'shrouded in the mists' of vanished time and distant place." In A Romance in Natural History, he reveals more of Amadeus's personal life till his death in 1946 as well as the religious journey Mary goes on till her death in 1949.

Mary Antin Promotional Photo 1915 (colorized)

Mary Antin is best known as the author of the autobiography The Promised Land which is the story of her childhood in Russia and her immigration to the United States. Mary was born in either 1881 or 1883 in Polotsk at the time Russia today is Belarus. First, Mary's father emigrated to the United States and then in 1894 brought his wife and two daughters to Boston on the German steamship Polynesia. Mary's sister Frieda went to work in the factories while Mary went to learn English. Her teacher was Miss Dillingham who encouraged Mary to write and after 4 months, she help Mary publish her first poem Snow. She later got a poem about Washington printed in the newspaper The Herald. After 4 years, she graduated the grammar school and was admitted into the prestigious Boston Girls' Latin School in 1898. While there, she was mentored by a wealthy Jewish philanthropist Lina Hecht (1848-1920), who helped get Mary's letter about traveling from Russia published in The American Hebrew newspaper. It's publisher Philip Cowen (1853-1943) then published the letter as a book entitled From Plotzk to Boston (1899) with author Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) providing a preface.

Now a published writer, Mary Antin found more mentors in Josephine Lazarus (1846-1910), sister of Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) whose poem in on the base of the Statue of Liberty and Reverend Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909). The Hale House was a gathering place for intellectually curious in Mary's neighborhood. It is here where she met her future husband Amadeus who was a graduate student working as a guide and lecturer at the museum of the Boston Society of Natural History. In May 1899, she went on a four day geology/botany field trip to Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts with The Teachers' School of Science lead by Mr. Grabau (1896) with MIT students Elvira Wood (1896), Ariel D. Savage (1897) and Frances Zirngiebel (1899) plus about 12 other students. After the event, Mary self published a book of 4 copies about the experience, one now resides in the Harvard Schlessinger Library entitled My Cuttyhunk Journal. These field trips resulted in the Hale House Natural History Club to form.


May 1899 on boat going to Cuttyhunk Island Massachusetts one of first pictures of Mary Antin and Amadeus Grabau together. Image colorized from her book My Cuttyhunk Journal

 In January 1900, she wrote Zangwill "He is my dear friend the scientist, who introduced me to the delights of nature study, the chief happiness in my life now." By August of that year, she was Dr. Grabau's private secretary while he was an instructor at Bayville Summer School of Natural History in Maine. On October 5,1901 she married Amadeus in a small ceremony officiated by Reverend Hale at his home. She wrote her friend Zangwill after event, "With the inspiration of my dear Doctor's genius my own power will grow, till some day I shall produce a work for which you will be willing to speak as kind a word as you did for my humble firstling." She would fulfill these prophetic words 11 years later when she published her famous book.

In a side note, Reverend Hale's secretary Harriet Elizabeth Freeman (1847-1930) attended MIT as a special student and was listed in class of 1895. Amadeus and Elvira Wood were in the class of 1896 while Thomas Watson and his wife Elizabeth were in the class of 1894. It was later documented by researcher Sara Day in 2014 that Hale and Freeman had a 25 year romantic relationship in secret.

Amadeus Grabau 1907 Columbia University Faculty Picture (colorized)

Amadeus Grabau was born in Cedarburg, Wisconsin into a family of prominent Lutheran ministers. He finished school in Buffalo New York. While in that city he became involved in the Buffalo Society of Natural Science (NSNS) which started him on a natural history career path that would last his lifetime. He corresponded with William Otis Crosby (1850-1925) at MIT who hired him at the Boston Society of Natural History in 1890. After arriving in Boston he took night classes so as to apply to MIT. Amadeus was admitted as a special student which remained for 3 semesters until being accepted as a regular student in 1892. He graduated with Bachelors of Science in Geology in 1896. While at MIT he worked with Elvira Wood (paleontological illustrator) and Hervey Woodburn Shimer (1872-1965). After getting his degree, he became an instructor there and taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic and lectured at Tufts College. Harvard presented him with a Masters of Science in 1898 and Doctorate of Science in 1900. He then accepted an professorship at Columbia University in New York City.

Dr. Marjorie O'Connell (colorized)

As of this writing, the A Romance in Natural History book was written almost 20 years ago. Since then some new information has appeared to flesh out more of Amadeus's social life. Personal letters left by his student Marjorie O'Connell (1890-1974) detailed an almost decade long affair she had with her professor, Amadeus Grabau. This information is thanks to the research of Katherine Dettwyler. It was a common belief that Dr. Grabau was released from employment by Columbia University due his support of Germany during World War I. Other factors in Grabau being terminated from his employment at  Columbia could be lack of department funds and issues with others in his department [James Kemp and his wife Kate]. Mazur documents this very well in chapter 7 of the book entitled "Crisis At Columbia". It is also possible that Grabau having an affair with a student also contributed to him being let go. As shown in chapter 7, Kate Kemp had it out for Dr. O'Connell but her letters never really specify why. Dr. Grabau accepted a job in China and left the United States for good in 1920 (returned once in 1933 for a conference). As the book documents, he had a productive career in China but had a sad end there.

My recommendation is to read this book if you are interested in the life of Mary Antin. She was a complex person who represents what an immigrant to the United States can accomplish from poverty to becoming a famous best selling author to decades of fading into obscurity where she died in nursing home in New York. Today she is known in the academic world as a early Jewish-American writer who wrote one of first impressions of being an immigrant in America and assimilating into its melting pot society. Also she had a number famous friends such as President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). Mary campaigned for him during his 1912 run for the presidency.

President Theodore Roosevelt (colorized)

She also kept up with correspondence with Thomas Watson, famous for his assistance to Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) in developing the telephone. Grabau taught Watson and his wife in paleontology while at MIT. Amadeus found a Cambrian Period gastropod fossil around the Boston area and named the genus after him Watsonella crosbyi. The species was named after MIT Professor William Otis Crosby (1850-1925) who taught both him and Watson. Mary exchanged letters with Tom Watson till his death in 1934. The book documents a number of times that Dr. Grabau borrowed money from Watson and Mary paid back or tried to pay back these debts. One has conclude that the chronic lack of money from time to time for Grabau was a contributing factor to his failed marriage to Mary.

Thomas Watson (colorized)

If you are interested in the geological phenom of the late 1800s to mid 1900s, Dr. Amadeus W. Grabau then this book will be of interest to you. He influenced a number of earth science students in the United States and China through his teaching and writing of many books. Dr. Robert R. Schrock (1904-1993) in his Geology At M.I.T. 1865-1965 volume II (1982) book writes about Grabau, "[he] was one of the world's greatest geologists, and one of M.I.T.' most distinguished and most productive alumni... Grabau wrote six major books, an equal number of major monographs, many manuals and teaching aids, and some 300 journal and bureau articles."

From my point of view, I am grateful he created the North American Index Fossil Invertebrates book with Hervey Shimer (1909) which evolved into the Index Fossils of North America by Hervey W. Shimer and Robert R. Shrock (1944). I am now discovering some of his other books with invertebrate fossils such as Guide to the Geology and Paleontology of Niagara Falls and Vicinity (1901) and A Textbook of Geology Part II Historical Geology (1921).

My friend Dr. James Conkin (1924-2017) also mentioned Amadeus Grabau in some of his books. James "Jim" Conkin served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a sergeant during World War II in the Pacific Theater. Jim had a unique perspective of being a geology college student in the early 1940s and then as a soldier in some of the last battles of the war with the Japanese and after the war being stationed in China to help remove POWs back to their home countries. After the war, Conkin finished his university studies and eventually taught geology for over 30 years at the University of Louisville.

He writes Amadeus Grabau, "In my opinion, perhaps the greatest paleontologist-stratigrapher America ever produced. His acceptance of continental drift (forerunner to plate tectonics) was far in advance of his time and his concept of pulsation and oscillation was a magnificent synthesis relating to universal correlation base on eustatic sea level advances and retreats. His work in two volumes, Continental Drive in Light of the Pulsation Hypothesis, his masterpiece, was bound in Chinese red with its title in gold leaf on the cover. When I arrived in North China with U.S. Marine Corps occupation forces [during World War II], I had hoped to meet Grabau, but he had died, I was told, just prior to our arrival, in October 1945 [told wrong, March 1946 when actually died]. Grabau suffered greatly from arthritis and did almost no field work in China; his only field work was done in the Tang Shan (Soup Mountains) near Nanking (Nanjing). I studied the Paleozoic section in the Tang Shan in 1980 and published a joint paper on a subspecies of agglutinate foraminiferan (Protozoa) characteristic of the Early Mississippian Kingling Formation of Jinasu Province and the Shihzi Shu Formation of Guangxi Province; this microfossil, Hyperammina kentuckyensis guangxiensis, suggests a time correlation with the Floyds Knob Formation in southern Indiana and Kentucky (see Conkin, 1957 and Conkin and Wang Ke-liang, 1980). Because of his severe arthritis, Grabau was left behind when the staff of the National University, fled before the advance of the Japanese in 1937. Grabau was captured and placed in a Japanese concentration camp. When word of his imprisonment was made known abroad, geologists around the world petitioned Emperor Hirohito to free Grabau, and the Emperor did. The amazing thing is that Hirohito was a marine biologist himself which no doubt accounted for this act of humanity, growing out respect for Grabau's work. I have no information as to what happened after this to Grabau. After his death, his ashes were kept in a lab, probably at the National University until after the communist revolution. In any event, his remains eventually were interred in the grounds of the National University (old Yenging University) and in 1987 I fulfilled a long wish to view the final resting place of my boyhood hero, Amadeus W. Grabau." 

If you read Allen Mazur's book, especially Chapter 14 entitled "World War", Grabau was not really captured by the Japanese, by the time they arrived he was an invalid. He was moved the old British embassy (somewhat of a concentration camp). Sadly, the last years of his life were not the best due to the war. I am not sure how Dr. Conkin involved the Japanese emperor into the Grabau story.