For Cornelia Clapp, science was too exciting a subject to be contained within a book. She had studied with naturalist and revolutionary teacher Louis Agassiz, whose dictum, “Study nature, not books!,” became her own. A renowned zoologist and instructor, she taught students to learn science from laboratory observations, not just textbooks.
The newness of this direct manner of learning can be felt in the experience of Louise Baird Wallace, who arrived at Mount Holyoke in 1891. Her school principal in Ohio told her, “You ought to study under Dr. Clapp. She keeps live frogs in tanks.” Of Clapp, Louise wrote, “I came, I saw; she conquered. I felt then and have felt ever since that I was never fully alive until I knew her.”
Known for her innovative, interactive teaching, Clapp captivated and inspired generations at Mount Holyoke, instilling powerful habits of inquiry and observation. Clapp was also an important role model. In a time when few women pursued science at all, she studied chick embryology at MIT and earthworms at Williams College. She was the first woman given a research position at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and became its first female trustee. Clapp was one of the first women ever to receive a Ph.D. from an American university, writing her dissertation on the blowfish Batrachus tau. In fact, she earned two doctorates, the first from Syracuse University in 1889, and the second from the University of Chicago in 1896.
Strongly devoted to Mount Holyoke, where she taught from 1872 to 1916, Clapp was instrumental in facilitating Mount Holyoke’s transition from seminary to college. In 1923, Clapp Laboratory was named in her honor.