Duo Discovers Who “Clapp” of Clapp Lab Was

Friday, September 13, 2013 - 11:30
Hannah Barg ’14 (left) and Grace Foster ’14

Seniors Hannah Barg  and Grace Foster had walked by Clapp Laboratory dozens of times, but not until this past summer did they discover for whom the building was named.

Barg and Foster conducted an archival and oral history project for the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. It was one of the few places that welcomed female scientists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

That’s why Cornelia Clapp—an early MHC professor of zoology and namesake of the future building—spent her summers at MBL. She was the first woman given a research position there and became its librarian and, later, its first female trustee.

“Scientific research at Mount Holyoke didn’t exist before Cornelia Clapp, and that’s largely due to her involvement with MBL,” said Barg. After observing classes and research there, Clapp thought Mount Holyoke should do similar work. So she founded the College’s zoology department and was the first to add a research component to science classes.

In addition to conducting archival research on pioneers such as Clapp, Barg and Foster interviewed current scientists as part of their internship. Foster said that, although the situation for women has improved since Clapp’s day, she was surprised to hear some contemporary stories of hiring discrimination that were similar to those in archival accounts.

This semester, Barg and Foster are writing biographical sketches of some 20 female MBL scientists for an online exhibition. Barg, an anthropology major and history minor, said recording oral histories was “really a good skill builder. And to have an active role in writing women back into science history was really cool.”

As a future teacher, Foster was particularly interested in how to get more women and children involved in science. “From my education classes, I learned to pinpoint the techniques MBL used to make that happen. And Mount Holyoke has taught me how to do research very well.”

“It was interesting to engage with the historical Mount Holyoke,” added Barg. “To us, Clapp was just the name of a building, but once we researched her life, Cornelia Clapp become a real person to me.”

Neither will likely pass Clapp Laboratory again without thinking about its pioneering namesake.

—By Emily Harrison Weir

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