by Jen Lynch, Laurel Hill Cemetery research intern and tour guide in-training
(Part 1 of a 2 Part Blog)
Before we introduce you to Dr. Helen Abbott Michael, have you met Mary Sue? You may have seen her name thrown around on the internet or in news articles over the last few years, especially if you’re a Game of Thrones or Star Wars fan. If you’re struggling to remember anyone by that name, it’s because Mary Sue isn’t a person, she’s a literary trope. Specifically, a “Mary Sue” character is one who is so good, smart, and capable that she can effortlessly conquer any challenge while also capturing the hearts of everyone she meets.
Critics of “Mary Sue” characters claim that they are unrealistic, unrelatable, and boring, symptoms of lazy writing; some recently accused “Mary Sues” include Arya Stark on Game of Thrones and Rey from the Star Wars franchise. Critics of the label “Mary Sue” say that the term itself is sexist, as it is used almost exclusively for female characters even when they are well-written, and that similar male characters, like Jon Snow, Luke Skywalker, or really any male superhero, are not so derisively labeled.
Are characters being dubbed “Mary Sues” because they are poorly written, or because it is unbelievable to audiences that women can be multi-talented, brave, and successful? Is it because in real life, society has upheld talented, successful men as role models but has been reluctant to allow women to attain the same skills and status? History shows us the truth that the label “Mary Sue” dismisses: it is already a challenge to exist as a woman in a male-dominated world, where societal standards can be hypocritical and where women are often pitted against each other for the rare positions made available in “men’s” spheres. Women who succeed spectacularly under such circumstances are not unbelievable “Mary Sues;” they are unbelievably amazing role models.
One such woman is Dr. Helen Cecilia DeSilver Abbott Michael, whose list of accomplishments is even longer than her name. Born in Philadelphia on December 23, 1857, her life reads like a “Mary Sue” story and includes such wild details that you’d think they were fictional. (Luckily, a biography and autobiography of Dr. Abbott Michael exist to prove that her accomplishments are the real deal: Studies in Plant and Organic Chemistry, and Literary Papers, with Biographical Sketch, from which most of the following quotes are taken.) Surprisingly relatable and anything but boring, this real-life heroine overcame society’s sexism and double-standards with a can-do attitude and succeeded in basically everything she ever tried, all while having fun and staying true to herself.
Prohibited books, Pianos, and Paris
Dr. Abbott Michael’s curiosity and love of learning started early, but unfortunately so too did her experience with gendered ideas of education. At age 8, she was caught reading one of her older brother’s anatomy books by her governess; Dr. Abbott Michael was especially entranced by the plates depicting the human skeleton but was swiftly told that this was not an area of study suitable for a young lady. With the anatomy book ripped from her hands, Dr. Abbott Michael indulged another interest – music.
She took piano lessons from a young age and excelled, becoming so renowned as a pianist that in 1878, at just 20 years old, she was asked to travel to the Isle of Wight to play at a benefit concert for those affected by the sinking of the ship Eurydice. Though the cause for the concert was grim, Dr. Abbott Michael’s reviews were glowing. One local newspaper called her “a performer of great finish and artistic appreciation of her subject,” while another said her performance “was marvelously clever and testified to a most thorough acquaintance with the pianoforte.”
Local journalists weren’t the only ones taking notice of Dr. Abbott Michael; professional musicians from all over Europe began fighting for the chance to mentor her after being blown away by her talent. She spent some time in Paris studying with mostly male professionals, one of whom felt that she had “an energy and will power[sic] of which many men might have been envious.”
Her sole female teacher was Madame Arabella Goddard, a famous pianist with whom she shared a lot in common. Like Dr. Abbott Michael, Madame Goddard began her career as something of a child prodigy and made her debut at age 17. She had since played for the French royal family, Queen Victoria, Frederic Chopin, and George Sand. (Fun fact: Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, best known by her pen name George Sand, was Dr. A.M.’s favorite author and was just as famous for her writing as she was for wearing men’s clothing, smoking in public, and generally disregarding gender norms of her time.) Madame Goddard was a woman whose hard work, talent, and confidence had made her a success in what was still considered to be a man’s field, and this likely made a big impact on what Dr. Abbott Michael viewed as possible for her own future.
While Madame Goddard felt that Dr. Abbott Michael was talented enough to become a professional musician, our heroine had other plans. An interest in travel, philosophy, and religion took her to Spain before she returned to America in 1881. For a time, she studied music at the University of Pennsylvania, and though she didn’t pursue it professionally, her love of music lasted throughout the rest of her life. Over the years, she continued to practice piano and took singing lessons as a hobby.
Regarding the abandonment of music as her sole pursuit, one of Dr. Abbott Michael’s closest friends wrote that she was capable “of taking up almost any study and carrying it forward to completion; as soon as this point was reached, her agile mind turned to another theme, with the Madame Arabella Goddard same result.” She certainly completed her musical pursuits with flying colors, plus she had seen what a woman could do if she fought to pursue her passions. To “the horror of [her] friends and acquaintances,” Dr. Abbott Michael had new ambitions in mind; this early chapter of her life, which began with a scientific book lost, ended with a scientific book found in a Parisian second-hand store.
Skeletons, Snakes, and Sexism
The book that opened the next chapter of Dr. Abbott Michael’s life was Hermann von Helmholtz’s Handbook of Physiological Optics, which inspired her to begin studying at the Medical College of Philadelphia in 1882. There she pursued every one of her many interests including optics, zoology, and anatomy, while indulging her love of music, art, and literature outside the classroom.
No longer having to sneak peeks into her brother’s book of skeletons, Dr. Abbott Michael was particularly passionate about anatomy and dissection, stating that “the cadaver had no terrors for” her and that “the marvelous construction of the human frame was an endless source of interest.” She enjoyed this hands-on experience so much that she even convinced the nearby Philadelphia Dental College to let her come in for two hours every night after close to practice dissections for fun. (Yes, this sounds like some serial killer stuff, but we swear Dr. A.M. just really loved learning!)
In addition to her dissection dedication, she somehow found time to dive into the world of zoology by literally surrounding herself with a roomful of snakes. On numerous occasions, she obtained samples of poisonous venom (for later study) by wrangling and then feeding the rattlesnakes at the Philadelphia Zoo; even the snakes’ keeper was too afraid to enter the enclosure, as there were a total of nine rattlesnakes in the same pen. (Mind you, she did this out of her own interest and not as part of a class assignment.) How did Dr. Abbott Michael get so comfortable around snakes, you ask? She purposefully handled and hung out with Carolina king snakes, constrictors with such strength that they sometimes kill and eat rattlesnakes.
Though these varied interests weren’t hurting her studies – she was getting perfect marks in every class – Dr. Abbott Michael had her first collegiate encounter with sexism when she refused to limit herself. One of her professors, Dr. William Thomson, didn’t approve of her “digressions into the field of art and literature,” despite the fact that he was well-known for his love of photography, a hobby that he combined with his scientific research to advance the field of optics. Our heroine didn’t let this stop her, though, and continued all of her studies with even more gusto than before.
The only thing that did stop her briefly was a horrible accident. Dr. Abbott Michael suffered from poor health for much of her life, and in January of 1883, she fainted after feeling unwell and fell down a small flight of stairs, hitting her head on a marble hearthstone at the bottom. She broke her jaw, got a concussion, and had whatever the 1883 definition of “internal displacement of the pelvic organs” entailed. She suffered fits of dizziness for the rest of her life and had three bouts of peritonitis afterward; yet, in a comeback that might be criticized as unbelievable for a fictional “Mary Sue,” Dr. Abbott Michael still passed her finals with perfect marks across the board just months later.
Bears, Bone Wars, and Bad Science
Feeling that her previous studies had been carried “forward to completion,” Dr. Abbott Michael left the Medical College of Philadelphia to become a private student at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. Her attention had turned to the chemical analysis of plants, not altogether a new interest; her summer fun after her first year at the Medical College included geological and botanical expeditions with Edward Drinker Cope, the now (in)famous paleontologist. (More on that later.)
Dr. Abbott Michael accompanied him on many scientific outings over the years, including a trip she took in 1885 with her dad and Cope to Yellowstone National Park. She remembered this trip as being “full of adventure,” from a close “encounter with a bear, a snowstorm on top of Mt. Washburn,” and having to rescue one of their horses after it slid 300 feet down a steep cliff (don’t worry, it was fine).
In Cope, she found support for her varied pursuits as he also had an “interest in all general subjects” including art and philosophy. Dr. Abbott Michael felt that “his influence in [her] life” held “inexpressible importance” as he encouraged her to collect specimens, to pursue and publish her research, and to attend and speak before scientific societies. In fact, it was Cope who helped her secure specimens of the Mexican and South American plants that would lead to some of her biggest discoveries.
Now before you get ready to hand Cope a women’s ally award, you should know that Dr. Abbott Michael records his reason for being “woman’s warm aider in forwarding her scientific work or opportunities” as his belief that “she was man’s intellectual and physical inferior,” and as such, “needed all the more [a] higher education to help her overcome her natural disabilities.” He felt that women were around for “man’s comfort and the perpetuation of the race,” and that they were “infantile.” Why would Dr. Abbott Michael put up with such nonsense? She understood that women had historically been denied educational opportunities and that she could make up for lost time by learning from the experiences granted to men, even if they came with a huge side of sexism.
In this regard, Cope also personified something Dr. Abbott Michael already knew; men can get away with a lot more than women can while remaining respectable. During “the Bone Wars,” Cope raced against fellow paleontologist Othniel Marsh to find as many new dinosaur species and fossils as possible. In an effort to get ahead, Cope rushed questionable findings into publication and even presented a dinosaur skeleton put together in such a hurry that he placed its skull at the end of its tail, instead of its neck. When this blunder was made public in The American Philosophical Society journal, Cope attempted to soothe his hurt ego and squash the story by buying as many copies as he could get his hands on; when that didn’t work, he purchased The American Naturalist journal to ensure a source of positive press about his findings. Despite all this, Cope remained a respected scientist and is still one of the most prolific authors in American scientific history.
This all happened before Dr. Abbott Michael worked with Cope, and while she doesn’t mention the Bone Wars in her writing, she does make it clear that she understands that society only allows women one chance to make it; mess that up by being too emotionally reactive or by producing poorly researched findings and you’re done. Perhaps “Mary Sues” always succeed because they’re smart enough to know that they always have to bring their A – game.
This is exactly what Dr. Abbott Michael would do in the next chapter of her story. After making groundbreaking discoveries in the world of plant science, she would be asked to hold lectures for huge groups of male scientists all over the globe. Was she being set up as a novelty to be scoffed at? Would she be dismissed as a Victorian-era “Mary Sue?” Would she somehow find time to write an internationally acclaimed art review, sample scientific beer, and traverse a glacier? Join us next time for the answers to these questions and for more of Dr. Helen Abbott Michael’s adventures!