Nebraska Hall of Fame, Part II: Edith Schwartz Clements

May, 2013

Lincoln -- Last year I nominated scientist Edith Schwartz Clements and her husband, Frederic Clements, for the Nebraska Hall of Fame. It was foretold that they could not be selected, because the Hall of Fame Commission cannot induct more than one person every five years (unless the state statute is amended). Nevertheless, the nomination process itself served to remind at least a few Nebraskans of the accomplishments of this remarkable woman.

My summary statement in support of Edith Clements appears below.

In more detailed nomination papers, I described the influence the Clementses had on Willa Cather. Cather not only was an outspoken admirer of the art Edith brought to her science, but new scholarship shows how the Clementsian scientific view of nature shaped Cather's fiction.

If any researcher (particularly a student) has an interest in Edith Schwartz Clements, I have a collection of materials gleaned from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the American Heritage Center of the University of Wyoming, the Bibliothek des BGBM in Berlin, and the Nebraska State Historical Society; I would be pleased to share them, along with books published by Edith.


Where to start about the indomitable Edith Clements? She was president of her junior class at the University of Nebraska, president of her sorority, captained a women's basketball team, gave fencing demonstrations, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi, became a teaching fellow in German, wrote a published dissertation in botany and, in 1906, became the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Nebraska.

She was only getting started. Her dream was to create an ecology laboratory, which she and husband Frederic did on the slopes of Pike's Peak. The laboratory existed for forty years, from 1900 to 1940. It helped train dozens of Nebraskans in botany and ecology, many of whom, like John Weaver, Frank Shoemaker, and Raymond Pool remained in Nebraska, and many of whom spread out across the country from Washington, D.C. to Texas to California, where they left lasting marks in the natural sciences for decades to come.

Edith ran the laboratory. She managed the logistics, chaperoned the undergraduates, enlivened the social activities, and taught ecology. In her spare time, she painted and published guidebooks the likes of which Willa Cather, on more than one occasion, said she would rather have written than all her novels.

Edith was married to Frederic Clements, the founder of the science of plant ecology, but she was no woman merely standing behind her man the great scientist. They were a scientific team, which the Nebraska Press Association once said was the greatest husband-wife team of scientists since the Curies. They published together under both their names, as can be seen in their works for National Geographic. Edith illustrated and helped compile two of the founding publications of the academic discipline of ecology, the second of which, Plant Succession, was recognized by the leading scientific institution of the day, the Carnegie Institution, as a monumental work of scholarship.

In 1911 Edith and Frederic toured Europe with the world's leading botanists and ecologists, making their mark permanently on the world stage. Two years later, the Europeans came to America on tour; they stayed longer at the Clementses' ecology laboratory than at any other location.

Yet Edith Clements' greatest contributions to Nebraska, to the Great Plains, and to her country as a whole may have come later in her life, when the Dust Bowl destroyed the livelihoods of countless farmers and ranchers across the plains. Concealing Frederic's life-threating health condition, she drove him between meetings in the nation's capital and then across the country through the Great Plains and the Southwest to invent and inspire conservation countermeasures to the Dust Bowl.

This was putting ecological science to the benefit of humankind, which was her life's great cause. After Frederic died in 1945, Edith carried on for more than two more decades, writing and defending the Clementses' approach to the discipline they had created and had dominated worldwide for more than half a century.