The Grand Canyon has drawn many scientists to explore its marvels and wonders. Many have made impacts on what we know about this place.
Women in science have made history studying and learning amongst the canyon walls. Women have pioneered work as botanists and naturalists. With their tenacity, they blazed a trail for other women to follow in their footsteps. From the Colorado River to the rim of the canyon, women in science have had a major impact on how we understand this park.
Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter
There is currently no documented case of a woman successfully traveling down the Colorado River before 1938. That year, Dr. Elzada Clover and graduate student Lois Jotter were the first women to make the trip. Clover worked for the University of Michigan as a botanist. Jotter had previously worked in Yosemite as a National Park Service naturalist. Clover had already done numerous expeditions to the Southwest. She collected many native species, particularly cacti. She wanted to make a trip to identify different plant species throughout the inner canyon. She wrote, “This part of the West is inaccessible because of a complete lack of roads and trails. It has never been explored botanically and for that reason everything collected will be of interest.”1 Originally planning a mule trip, experienced river guide Norm Nevills convinced her to make it a river trip. Clover asked Jotter to join the trip. Jotter wrote, “I know that I’m not getting into any lark, but you know, that it will be something I’ll always regret not doing, if I don’t.”2 Buzz Holmstrom, who had run the river alone a year earlier, said, “Women have their place in the world, but they do not belong in the Canyon of the Colorado.”3 When Clover and Jotter started the trip, Holmstrom wrote to his mother, “now these women are in the canyon—if they make it I guess it will be time for me to go and hide somewhere.”4 The trip took over 43 days as they travelled over 660 miles of challenging waters and treacherous terrain. Jotter wrote of their time in the Canyon, “We collected furiously.” Clover wrote, “It was just a part of the day’s work to make a flying leap for shore, to climb steep cliffs after plants, and to get photographs.”5 By the end of the trip Clover and Jotter had identified five different plant zones and over fifty species. They also found four previously unidentified species. The trip was for the science, but they also made history while they were at it.
Pauline (Polly) Patraw Mead
Pauline Patraw studied botany at the University of Chicago. She spent two years studying the North Rim of the Grand Canyon starting in 1927. She said, “As we were going through the Kaibab Forest my professor said ‘do you notice how the trees come right down to the edge of the Meadow and just stop? He said that would make an interesting study to see why the tree lines just stops suddenly like that at the Meadow.’ I thought haha! That’s the subject of my thesis for my Masters. . . . So, I tried to cover the whole plateau. It took me a long time, mostly on horseback. I had a plant press on my back and I’d go out and collect specimens.”6 She eventually published her thesis of a complete study of the plant life of the Kaibab Plateau. After finishing her thesis, she applied to the U.S. Forest Service to be a ranger naturalist. Patraw said, “I had trying to get a job with the Forest Service but they wouldn’t take me because I was a woman. Period.”7 She instead applied to Grand Canyon for a similar position and was hired in 1930. She became the first woman to be a ranger at Grand Canyon, and the second throughout the entire park service. She said, “I took people on nature hikes or gave campfire lectures at night. And then my main job was to be stationed out a Yavapai where the bus loads of people would come and I would give lectures to a group of people right there at Yavapai. . . . So I was very proud of that job. And some of the men ranger naturalists resented the fact that I was a woman and had the same position they did, and made it a little bit difficult. When I say give me a hard time it was just an attitude that I felt. That wasn’t important, I thought.”8
Rose E. Collom
Rose E. Collom was the first paid botanist at Grand Canyon National Park. She was a self-taught botanist who eventually became an expert on Arizona plants. She collected several previously unidentified species, many of which were named after her.
D. John Howell of the California Academy of Science named one of these plants Galium Collomiae. He said, “It is a pleasure and honor to name this distinctive addition to the Arizona flora in honor of Mrs. Rose Collom who has done so much critical field work in that state.”9
After a field trip to Grand Canyon in 1938, Collom received a grant to collect species in the park. She collected specimen at Grand Canyon through 1954. The herbarium at Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collections has over 800 of her specimens.
Women have since became leaders in scientific study and natural resource preservation at Grand Canyon. Learning about the women pioneers at Grand Canyon shows us how far we have come and what work we have to do in the future.
1 Sevigny, Melissa. The Wild Ones. The Atavist Magazine No. 96, Oct. 2019.
6 Poly Pod. Grand Canyon Behind the Scenes Podcast. Dec. 2020.
9 Rose Collom (1870-1956) Arizona Women's Hall of Fame. 2013.