Celebrating Edith Scamman

March 31, 2021
Edith Scamman standing in front of a large tree in California

Each March we pause to celebrate the many contributions women have made to our culture and society. Women's History Month is a chance to reflect on the trailblazing women that have paved the way for many others and yet are often overlooked. This year, we celebrate Edith Scamman.

Edith Scamman was born on November 30, 1882, in Saco, Maine, to Henry and Francesca Allen Scamman. Edith attended Wellesley College and received a B.A. in English in 1907. She went on to study literature at Radcliffe College and received an M.A. in 1909. Scamman spent most of the following 25 years working at her church and caring for her mother. She began to study nature as a hobby and eventually gave talks on plants and shells to local clubs.

After her mother's death in 1935 Scamman undertook a year of scientific study at Radcliffe. She became interested in Merritt Lyndon Fernald’s studies of plant distribution in unglaciated areas of Alaska. She made her first collecting trip to Alaska in the summer of 1936. Scamman returned to Alaska eight times between 1937 and 1954 and collected approximately 5,000 specimens, which she deposited at the Gray Herbarium. She also spent six weeks collecting plants in Iceland in 1938.

Scamman spent the summer of 1939 at the Oxford University Herbarium and was in England at the outbreak of World War II. The experience left a lasting impression on her and she gave a number of talks on the subject after returning to the United States. Scamman continued to work for her church while pursuing her botanical interests and served as president of the Missionary Council of the Congregational Church Women of Maine from 1940-1944. She also served on the American Fern Society’s Overseers Committee to visit the Gray Herbarium from 1942-1946.

Scamman’s interest in ferns was encouraged by Charles Alfred Weatherby. With his assistance, she published Ferns and Fern Allies of New Hampshire in 1947. Two years later she was appointed as a research associate at the Gray Herbarium. Scamman made four collecting trips to Costa Rica between 1951 and 1956 to study ferns. She also traveled to Puerto Rico and the French territory of Guadeloupe in 1960. She published four articles on Costa Rican ferns and was working on a fifth at the time of her death. In 1962 Scamman became an honorary research associate of the Gray Herbarium. She died on November 4, 1967, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A significant portion of Scamman’s specimens have been imaged and databased, in no small part thanks to NSF mass digitization funding: https://kiki.huh.harvard.edu/databases/specimen_search.php?start=0&cltr=E.+Scamman&limit=5000

Correspondence, photographs, manuscripts and other materials are available from our Botany Libraries Archives: https://hollisarchives.lib.harvard.edu/repositories/22/resources/1236