Mary Jane Rathbun and the Crustacea

Mary Jane Rathbun (1860-1943)

Mary Jane Rathbun (1860-1943)

On June 11, 1860, American zoologist Mary Jane Rathbun was born. Rathbun established the basic taxonomic information on Crustacea. For many years she was the Smithsonian’s complete department of marine invertebrates where she studied, cataloged, and preserved specimens. Through her basic studies and published works, she fixed the nomenclature of Crustacea and was the recognized, and the much sought after, authority in zoology and carcinology.

Mary Jane Rathbun was a self-taught zoologist and it all started when her brother Richard worked as a scientific assistant to Addison Emery Verrill along with Verrill’s chief assistant, the carcinologist Sidney Irving Smith. In 1881, she accompanied Richard to Woods Hole, Massachusetts where she saw the ocean for the first time. There, she helped to sort and record Sidney Smith’s specimens. For about three years, she volunteered for her brother before she was granted a clerkship by Spencer Fullerton Baird at the Smithsonian Institution. After 28 years of work at the museum, Rathbun was promoted to assistant curator in charge of the Division of Crustacea. In 1916, she was given an honorary master’s degree by the University of Pittsburgh. One year later, she qualified for a Ph.D. at George Washington University with a study on marine crabs.

In 1891, Mary Jane Rathbun published her first scientific work together with James Everard Benedict on the genus Panopeus. Probably her most influential work was Les crabes d’eau douce (“Freshwater crabs”). It was published in three volumes in 1904–1906. In total, Rathbun co-wrote 166 papers, describing 1147 new species and subspecies.

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