- UW Department of Geology and Geophysics
Katharine Fowler-Billings (1902–1997) became a practicing field geologist in the 1920s, long before this was a commonplace career for a woman. Her life achievements are those that anyone would be proud to have—fine educational credentials, including a Ph.D. from Columbia University; a publication record that includes fundamental geological descriptions of large areas in Wyoming, Sierra Leone, and New Hampshire; and a record of environmental activism in New England. It is, as Kay wrote, “a full life, spanning the century and circling the globe.” How did she accomplish so much? I suggest it is the result, at least in part, of three things: Kay's independent spirit, which manifested itself early in her life and never abated; the deaths of her parents before she completed her education, which freed her from the expectations of Boston society regarding proper behavior; and finally, a keen intellect that enabled her to pursue and attain her goals. Her early life and her geologic education in the Rocky Mountains amply illustrate the development of these character traits.
Kay wrote (Fowler-Lunn, 1938), “my parents would turn in their graves if they could know of all the foolhardy things I have done in my short life.” She was reared in Boston, “with the typically Puritanical upbringing which the name ‘Boston’ implies” and “was sent, rebelling, to dancing school—wearing frilly, Irish lace dresses, and two long pigtails with huge silk bows.” She went to a select girls' school in Boston, then chose Bryn Mawr for her college. Her mother approved (her father having died when she was 16), considering her choice “select, high standing, and only nice girls went there.” But Kay had a different basis for making her choice—Bryn Mawr was as far from home as possible, out of New England.
Her education included a Grand Tour of Europe …