Mary Agnes Chase: Mentor, Activist, Botanist

By Leanna McMillin

Mar 20 2020

Mary Agnes Chase was a self educated, determined, and influential botanist. Early in her career, Chase was hired as a botanical illustrator by C. F. Millspaugh, curator of plants at the Field Museum in Chicago. In 1903 when Chase was appointed as a botanical illustrator at the USDA, Millspaugh wrote to his colleagues and petitioned for Chase to have access to the National Herbarium on her own time.

At the National Herbarium, Chase became an expert on the notoriously complex taxonomy of grasses. In 1906 she published her first paper and by 1909 she was appointed assistant botanist by Albert S. Hitchcock.

During this time, Chase was also an active member of the Socialist Party, the radical Women’s Party, and a member of the NAACP. As a member of the “Silent Sentinels” she took part in multiple protests in front of the White House and was eventually arrested. In jail she participated in a hunger strike with her fellow suffragists, resulting in national headlines. When top USDA officials called for her removal, Hitchcock refused, saying he could not complete his research without her.

Chase used her status as a female scientist and government employee to empower and mentor other women interested in science, even opening up her home to young students. She faced many professional difficulties throughout her career, and was repeatedly denied funding and permission by the National Museum to conduct necessary field research. This lack of funding and approval did not stop her. She established multiple exchanges of specimens between countries in Central and South America, and conducted field research, often self funded, throughout the Americas.

After her retirement at the age of 70, she continued to work as honorary curator of grasses at the National Herbarium. Chase was awarded a Certificate of Merit at the 50th anniversary of the Botanical Society of America for being “one of the world's outstanding agrostologists and preeminent among American students in this field.”

A Closer Look

Distinguished Fellow of the Botanical Society of America. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2020, from

Fosberg, F. R., & Swallen, J. R. (1959). Agnes Chase. Taxon, 8(5), 145–151. doi: 10.1002/j.1996-8175.1959.tb03789.x

Henson, P. M. (2003). What Holds The Earth Together: Agnes Chase And American Agrostology. Journal of the History of Biology, 36(3), 437–460. doi: 10.1023/b:hist.0000004568.11609.2d