Mary Minerva Steagall

Mary M. Steagall (2nd from left); H.C. Cowles (3rd from left); Miller; Hines at Ozark, Illinois.  American Environmental Photographs Collection, AEP-ILS329, Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library.

Mary M. Steagall (2nd from left); H.C. Cowles (3rd from left); Miller; Hines at Ozark, Illinois.
American Environmental Photographs Collection, AEP-ILS329, Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library.

She joined the Biology Department at Southern Illinois University (SIU, then Southern Illinois Normal College, SINC) in 1913 and became its head in 1921, a position she held until her retirement 17 years later at the age of 71. After a 1926 split, however, it was the Zoology portion of the enterprise she managed. But was she a zoologist? Her career suggests broader interests.

Mary Minerva Steagall was a student of H.C. Cowles and W.C. Allee at the University of Chicago, obtaining her PhD by 1908. She taught in the training school, taught mathematics and Latin, and she landed in the three-person Biology & Agriculture Department. By 1929, those three people were all women; she was joined by Hilda A. Stein and Martha H. Scott. The three offered 16 courses in zoology that year; Ms. Scott also aided the Botany Dept’s teaching load.

According to Dr. Steagall’s bio at SIU, on solo field trips “…she typically carried a loaded pistol, but admitted she only used it once (to let a rabble of moonshiners know she wasn’t easily scared away).”

Outside of zoology, Dr. Steagall is known for her interest in rare ferns, notably the filmy fern (Trichomanes boschianum) in Illinois. In 1923, she discovered the fern in Jackson Hollow, Pope County, a locality where it was next documented in 1961 by Robert Evers, by which time it was not just rare but seriously threatened.

Dr. Steagall was engaged in her community as well as academia, even running as Progressive Party Candidate for the office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1914. She also served the Illinois Council of Administrative Women in Education, and of course, the ESA.

Dr. Mary Steagall had joined ESA by 1923 and continued as a member for many years. She was, along with Dr. Victor Shelford, the “state representative” for the organization, charged with developing regional contacts for the fledging society. According to Ben Gelman, “As a member of the National Committee on Conservation and Preservation of Natural Areas, Steagall helped the Ecological Society of America set aside many undisturbed areas valuable for scientific study.”

References (to be completed, but see links above)

Bio at SIU

Zoology Dept history at SIU

Steagall Candidate

Illinois Council of Administrative Women in Education

Filmy Fern in Illinois, by Robert A. Evers

Article in The Southern Illinoisan, by Ben Gelman

Ecology of Southern Illinois Ferns

Posted in Biographies

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