30 March 2020

Stepping-Stones, by Katharine Fowler-Billings

Posted by Callan Bentley

This memoir by one of America’s earliest female geologists is an enjoyable read about adventure and professional working conditions in the 1920s and 1930s, and up though the 1950s and 1960s. Fowler-Billings (née Fowler) led an interesting life, ranging from growing up in an urban Boston that still had a significant horse population to post-retirement conservation and environmental activism. In between, Kay was a field geologist and an educator. She was born and died in New Hampshire, but roamed the world during her active almost century of life.

Herself a product of the geology departments at Bryn Mawr (where she was a student of Florence Bascom) and the University of Wisconsin (MA in geography), and finally Columbia for her PhD (where she mapped Wyoming’s Laramie Anorthosite Complex for the first time), she inspired generations of geology students through her teaching at Wellesley and Tufts. In between, she worked as a resource geologist in West Africa, searching for gold and lead and iron and other valuable commodities in challenging conditions that she appears to have enjoyed immensely.

Much of the book is given over to recounting her travels, which is a genre I use to enjoy very much, but I find it doesn’t hold my interest as much nowadays. More interesting to me now is how Fowler-Billings navigated the various professional obstacles she encountered, with confidence and cleverness. A worthwhile read to enter the mind of a trailblazing geologist.