The Continuing Adventures of Dr. Helen Abbott Michael

by Jen Lynch, Laurel Hill Cemetery research intern and tour guide in-training

(Part 2 of a 2 Part Blog)

When we last left our heroine, Dr. Helen Abbott Michael, she had already achieved great success in her musical endeavors, faced off with cadavers, snakes, and bears (oh, my!), and aced her academic exams with flying colors despite the challenges she faced as a woman entering what was still, in the late Victorian era, very much a man’s realm. Yet, the questions remain: Was she being set up as a novelty to be scoffed at? Would she be dismissed as a Victorian-era “Mary Sue?” And what the heck is scientific beer?

The Manet Interests of Dr. Abbott Michael

Dr. Abbott Michael was taking the scientific world by storm; from 1883 to 1886, she was publishing papers, giving lectures, working in a chemistry lab at the Philadelphia Polyclinic, and working towards her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. Yet, despite her previous professor’s warnings, she still refused to focus solely on scientific pursuits; in fact, her next published work was a 21 page review of the first U.S. exhibition of Impressionist art at the American Art Association, which showcased works by Monet, Renoir, and Manet among others.

Her review, Science and Philosophy in Art, was published under the pen name, Celen Sabbrin. (Likely an intentionally confusing genderless twist on “Helen,” a quick google search leads one to believe that this is the only instance of the name Celen… ever.) Did she think a woman’s review wouldn’t be taken seriously? Was she worried about the effect it might have on her scientific career?

One of the works Dr. Abbott Michael discusses in her review is Claude Monet’s The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil, seen here.

While these were legitimate concerns for the era, it turns out all she had to worry about was becoming an internationally acclaimed art critic. Her review was published by numerous art journals in the U.S. and abroad, including the French magazine La Vogue. It was such a hit that the American Art Association started selling copies at the exhibition’s door to help visitors make sense of the Impressionist art works.

Step Right Up, Folks! See a Real Live Girl Scientist!

During 1886 and 1887, Dr. Abbott Michael was lecturing in some of the most prestigious halls of science in America, including the Franklin Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the United States National Museum. Her lectures highlighted her (now-proven) theory of chemical evolution in plants, as well as plants’ potential for medical and practical uses, like her discovery of a new yellow dye sourced from chichipate, a Honduran plant. She also discovered a replacement for the lessening supply of gum arabic and theorized that synthetic proteins, sugars, and starches would soon be possible. Furthermore, she proposed the production of perfumes sourced from trees and less traditional plants, unheard of at a time when the most popular fragrances were rose, violet, and citrus scents. Her idea was a winning one too; many of today’s most popular perfumes, colognes, and home fragrances include scents like cedar, pine, sandalwood, oud, vetiver, and patchouli.

But even if we’re following her perfume advice now, what did her audiences think about her then? The Philadelphia Ledger called one of her lectures “an entertainment altogether unique,” noting that “the spectacle of a graceful young girl…explaining, with the familiarity of an elderly savant, the valuable results of laboratory researches…was interesting from more than one point of view.” While this article does give Dr. Abbott Michael a glowing review, it also describes her with gendered language that recalls how “Mary Sue” characters are described; it’s unlikely that a male scientist would be written about in comparable terms. The article ends by listing her achievements in plant chemistry, then asking, “What more dainty, more beautiful, more useful work to set before the girl-student?”

Dr. Abbott Michael was 29 years old when she was giving these lectures, certainly not a “girl,” and her intelligence and pioneering research made it clear she was much more than a mere “entertainment” or “spectacle.” Did Dr. Abbott Michael’s audiences, filled with the country’s leading male scientists, find her to be a charming side-show act, a rare “girl” scientist to marvel over but to ultimately dismiss?

The United States National Museum in Washington, D.C.; it still stands today as the Smithsonian Institute Art & Industries Building

Thankfully, no. A Washington, D.C. paper notes that her theories regarding chemical evolution in plants were “original with her and [are] attracting the attention of scientific men” worldwide, many of whom “desired to meet her.” While Dr. Abbott Michael was conducting her research for the sake of science, not men’s approval, she did feel that “centuries of cultivation…have established these men on a plane which [women] cannot yet quite approach.” To gain some ground against this historic disadvantage, our heroine decided to take these men up on their curiosity and plan herself a little trip to Europe.

Scientific Beer, Sexism, Switzerland, & Seances

Dr. Abbott Michael spent the rest of 1887 traveling through Europe and dropping in on as many labs and schools as she could, always “asking the usual question, if ladies would be admitted.” Though most of the “scientific men” she met treated her hospitably and showed “the utmost willingness…to give [her] all the information possible” about their own work, the answers to her “usual question” ranged from progressive inclusion to personal and systemic sexism. (You should be able to guess by now that Dr. Abbott Michael would be undeterred by even the chilliest response and, in typical “Mary Sue” fashion, would definitely get up to some madcap antics before her trip was over!)

For instance, many of the major universities and labs in Sweden and Denmark admitted women “on equal terms with the men” and granted them diplomas. One of these labs was the Carlsberg Laboratory in Denmark, where Dr. Emil Christian Hansen (pictured) welcomed Dr. Abbott Michael “as the first lady who had ever visited his laboratory on a scientific mission, and he expressed his admiration and gratification.” Dr. Hansen effectively created modern beer brewing by figuring out how to culture pure yeast strains. As he was still tinkering with different species of yeast to see which would yield the best results, Dr. Abbott Michael got “to drink some of his scientific beer” as a guest taste-tester!

What’ll ya have? How about a pint of Carlsberg 1883, a lager still produced today and likely sampled by Dr. A.M. herself, as it’s made from Dr. Hansen’s original recipe?

It was in Germany that she found the strongest resistance to women pursuing higher education, as the Minister of Instruction decreed that “women were not admitted because there were no places for them in the professions.” Dr. Abbott Michael wondered: Did it never “occur to the director that they might wish to study for the study’s sake?” (Did it also never occur to him that it was possible to make places for women “in the professions?”) She was pleased to learn though that these edicts weren’t stopping all German women from getting their study on; some attended scientific lectures anyway, literally hiding “undercover, behind a screen, or back of a window or door” to do so.

Dr. Abbott Michael soon got a taste of what these German women were up against when

Yes, that Dr. Bunsen!

she got burned by famous chemist Dr. Robert Wilhelm Bunsen who refused to give her even a quick look around his lab. She then met Professor Friedrich August Kekulé who welcomed her warmly but also asked “why in the world [she] wanted to study chemistry, why [she] did not do something else!” (Makes you wonder what his answer to the same question would have been…) He told her he had only taken on two female students; one died by suicide and “the other lady was always making combustions and reading romances,” so he refused to take on any more.

Surely male students also blow stuff up by accident; even Dr. Bunsen lost sight in one eye thanks to an explosion he caused himself. Reminiscent of the gendered hypocrisy surrounding Edward Cope, Dr. Abbott Michael’s mentor, this was another reminder that as a woman entering a “man’s” field, you were unjustly made a representative for your entire gender, and if you blew it, it might be over for all women. Furthermore, if liking romance novels makes women too flighty to do good science, what should be made of the fact that Kekulé claimed that his two biggest discoveries, the benzine ring and the theory of chemical structure, came to him in dreams featuring snakes and dancing atoms and molecules?

Enter a captionWere you wondering what Dr. A.M. might’ve worn while scaling the Wetterhorn (below)? While we can’t be sure, this engraving shows a woman climbing the Tyrolian Alps in 1885 and gives us an idea of what Dr. A.M.’s climb looked like!

If Professor Kekulé didn’t think a lady scientist should have any other interests, he definitely wouldn’t have approved of the next few items on our heroine’s itinerary. She took a quick trip to Switzerland where she climbed the Wetterhorn, a huge glacial mountain in the Alps, despite the proprietor at her lodging telling her that 27 deaths had occurred on the mountain in that year alone. Much of the journey involved wading “through snow to [her] knees” and cautiously traversing frozen lakes; after climbing down into a crevasse so she could walk through an ice tunnel, she decided “glaciers would offer a fruitful subject for study.”


After a brief time falling in with “a distinctly artistic set” in France, Dr. Abbott Michael

William Crookes takes a séance stroll with Katie King, the spirit guide of Florence Cook, who – SPOILER ALERT – was not a real ghost.

finished her trip in London, where time spent in Sir William Crookes’ lab “was the most remarkable and interesting [experience] of her whole trip.” Crookes was an incredibly famous scientist, known for his pioneering work with vacuum tubes and spectroscopy, and his discovery of the element thallium. He was so delighted to meet Dr. Abbott Michael that in addition to an all-day tour of his private lab, he gifted her several of the vacuum tubes he was using for gemstone spectroscopy, one containing a genuine ruby. He also insisted on bringing her to a meeting of the Royal Society, even though “ladies did not attend,” so that he could introduce her to his colleagues. Interestingly, before Dr. Abbott Michael met him, Crookes was embroiled in a scandal regarding his scientific (?) backing of a debunked Spiritualist medium named Florence Cook, yet he went on to be knighted in 1897; such a scandal surely would have sunk a female scientist.

With new-found knowledge of women’s scientific prospects in Europe, and confident that she had held her own against some of the best male scientists in the world, Dr. Abbott Michael determined that she would continue her career back in the States. She arrived home just in time for her 30th birthday.

From a Honeymoon to Healthcare: Dr. A.M’s Later Years

Science Sweethearts: Dr. A.M. and her husband, Arthur (pictured below)

Hearing of his innovative research while abroad, Dr. Abbott Michael went to study in Boston at Tuft’s College with leading organic chemist, Professor Arthur Michael. (Bet you can see where this is headed.) In addition to science, it turns out he also loved art, literature, and mountain climbing; a perfect match, they married in June of 1888 and toured and studied in Japan, India, and Africa for their honeymoon. (Now, if you find Dr. Abbott Michael unrelatable thanks to her “Mary Sue”- like success at everything, you should also know she collected travel souvenirs depicting her favorite animal, “the harmless necessary cat.” If that’s not humanizing, what is?) She and Arthur set up their own lab on the Isle of Wight, her old musical stomping mrgrounds, from 1891 until 1895, when they moved back to Boston. There, Dr. Abbott Michael continued her research at Tuft’s and was active in several literary clubs, writing and presenting nearly as many poems and literary essays as she did scientific papers.

She returned from another trip to the Austrian Alps in 1896 with “a sense of great oppression” and “horror” at the poverty and lack of opportunities faced by the villagers she met there, who told her of their “longing…for a wider life,” a sentiment she understood well. Unable to shake this experience, she decided the best way she could combat “human suffering” was to enter the Medical

* Fixed that for you. (Important Laurel Hill Note: Real life attempts to “fix” gravestones are NOT appreciated.)

School of Tuft’s College in 1900, become a doctor and open a free clinic. In partnership with another female doctor, Dr. Abbott Michael “turned her home on West Cedar Street into a free hospital” in 1902, a year before she officially graduated in 1903. Passionate about her work until the end, Dr. Abbott Michael caught the flu from one of her patients in 1904 and passed away from complications on November 29th of that year, just shy of her 47th birthday. She was laid to rest in her family’s plot at Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Section W Lot 111, although her gravestone is, unfortunately, lacking the title she worked so hard to attain.


Dr. Abbott Michael: Real Life “Mary Sue?”

This is usually the point where, once a “Mary Sue” story has ended, critics accuse the heroine of not succeeding on her own merit and discredit her as unbelievable and unrelatable. Perhaps one could critique Dr. Abbott Michael for the opportunities she was afforded by her inherent privilege as a white woman from an affluent family, which is absolutely accurate. Even with these privileges, it is undeniable that her achievements were earned by her intelligence, hard work, and perseverance in the face of sexism. What’s more, she used her privilege to help others. In addition to opening her free hospital, she supported other female scientists. As a mentor, she imparted both scientific knowledge and life experience, telling one young woman, “You may rest assured that even if you do not find congenial sympathy for your tastes and occupations, that is no reason to feel discouraged over their pursuit.”

As for believability, it’s true so you better believe it! Dr. Abbott Michael proves a “Mary Sue” really can do it all. Stories like hers, whether real or fiction, need to be told because they allow anyone, regardless of their sex or gender identity, who has ever felt “discouraged over their pursuit” to imagine greater possibilities for themselves and to know success is possible even in the face of adversity. Hopefully, the more we tell stories like Dr. Abbott Michael’s, the more society will recognize the achievements of women and the less we’ll see critics crying “Mary Sue.”

If you’d like to learn more, her book Studies In Plant and Organic Chemistry, and Literary Papers, with Biographical Sketch, is available online and contains more of her story, her science, and even a bunch of her poems! Hopefully, Dr. Abbott Michael has inspired you to pursue whatever your goals are – a dream job, traveling, writing that novel, adding to your cat figurine collection. If her story isn’t enough to convince you, check out the online exhibit “Their Legacies: The Women of Laurel Hill and West Laurel Hill Cemeteries,” on Laurel Hill’s website for more real-life stories of women who didn’t let their detractors limit their achievements.

1 thought on “The Continuing Adventures of Dr. Helen Abbott Michael

  1. Fun fact: One of Edward Drinker Cope’s early works was illustrated by Cecilia Beaux, later famed portrait painter who is interred at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Summit Section, Lot 673 – the Drinker family plot.


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