Many female geologists who came into their careers in the 1930s and 1940s found it challenging to emerge into a predominantly male-dominated discipline. For the most part, they worked within the confines of a classroom or a laboratory, or perhaps temporarily replaced male scientists drafted during World War II.
The options for female geologists might not have matched those of their male counterparts, but for some women – they were opportunities nonetheless – and they deserved chasing.
Helen Laura Foster, an AAPG member who is now 94, took full advantage of the dearth of male scientists during the war. She left a teaching job at Wellesley College in 1948 and marched into a career of a lifetime, which she shaped by persistence, gender aside.
Working in the Tokyo office of the Military Geology Branch of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) after Japan was defeated in 1945, Foster and others were charged with gathering information about the little known South Sea islands formerly under Japanese Mandate.
“When the war broke out in the Pacific region, the United States was greatly handicapped by its near total ignorance of these distant islands south of Japan,” Foster recently recalled from her Carson City, Nev., home. “These were major jumping off points with hidden airports, air bases and things we knew very little about. We did not want to be caught out in the cold again if hostilities should rise again.”
Japanese geologists took the project in stride and showed a willingness to either provide or gather geological data, Foster said. The project produced many maps and reports on the geology, soils, vegetation, shorelines, ground water and cross-country movement, as well as a complete annotated bibliography of the geology and soils of the islands for the U.S. government.
Outstanding in the Field
After a year on the project, Foster was asked to remain in Tokyo to continue working on the Post Hostilities Mapping Program.
Wanting to stretch her wings outside of an office, Foster said she would remain only if able to work in the field – a request as avant-garde then as a woman asking to fight in the front line of combat today.
Whether or not the time was right, or her insistence simply brooked no refusals. Foster not only was given a field project, but she was later made chief of the Ishigaki Field Party that worked non-stop collecting data on the island of Ishigaki, a geologically complex island in the Ryukyu island chain south of Japan.
“Helen’s story is a prime example of how great careers are born from seizing an opportunity with both hands and running with it,” said Amanda Haddad, AAPG member and chair of the association’s Pioneer Women – a committee of the Professional Women in Earth Sciences (PROWESS). “Even more impressive is that she did it in a male-dominated field and at a time when not many women received Ph.D. degrees or worked in the field. That is why Helen is a true pioneer.”
In the 1940s, when the USGS published a brochure about military geology – clearly stating a woman’s limited place in the field – Foster was making forays into literally unchartered territory. In tow were a second geologist, two soil scientists and a botanist.
Not only did Foster lead the group, she performed most of the major geological mapping using her expertise in complex geological structures and in metamorphic rocks.
A side perk to working in Japan was being able to meet Emperor Hirohito several times and tour his palace’s grounds, including his laboratory, which included a glimpse of his specially-made microscope and scientific workbooks.
On weekends, Foster also was able to hop on a small ship to the island of Oshima, a volcano that was in eruption at the time, and study volcanic activity and the effectiveness of constructing walls to retain the flow of molten lava.
Hank Schmoll, Foster’s former colleague, said her adventurous spirit and willingness to experience the world made the mapping of Ishigaki a highlight of her career.
“I never had the feeling that she was at any particular disadvantage for being a woman,” Schmoll said. “She was accepted by the guys – she had to be, because she did everything that was required of her.”
While some might have turned down an assignment on a little-known Pacific island, Foster saw it as a ticket.
Schmoll recalled, “Helen said, ‘Sure, I’d love to do that – here’s my chance to get out and see the world.’”
Bear In Mind
Schmoll met Foster on separate assignments for the USGS in Alaska in the 1960s, after Foster completed her mission on Ishigaki. In Alaska, Schmoll was sent to help remap Anchorage after the Great Alaska Earthquake in 1964. Foster already was mapping in yet another inconspicuous place: the Yukon-Tanana Terrane, a vast area, not known at the time for minerals or other items of interest – a no-man’s land, if the pun allows.
“This was not the glamorous place to work, but that didn’t mean anything to her,” Schmoll recalled. “She was the No. 1 geologist for a vast region. What more could a geologist want? She always seemed happy to be there.”
Indeed, Foster has many fond memories of being airlifted by old Army H-21 helicopters to various spike camps and other field locations to map very remote areas of Alaska. Often the unreliable mode of transportation – called “flying bananas” – would break down, forcing her and an assistant to rely on any survival food they might have carried in their packs until they could be retrieved.
“We are eating our last meal,” Foster recalled saying once via radio to a pilot of a broken-down chopper.
Dodging bears was another hazard that came with the job.
Once, on a solo mission traversing a ridge in a remote valley teaming with juicy blueberries, Foster spotted a large grizzly bear headed her way as he ate his way down the berry trail.
“I wanted to get away from him before he spotted me, but every time I moved away he stepped closer,” she recalled.
Pulling out her radio to signal for help only intrigued the bear, causing him to move within 15 feet of her.
“I held up my backpack and talked to him until the helicopter arrived and scared him away,” she said. “I got lucky because the bear seemed young and more interested in the blueberries than in me.”
Whether she was on a snake-infested Pacific island or in the thick of Alaskan terrain, Foster felt at home despite the unknowns around her.
“After spending two to three months walking all day in semi-rugged terrain, she’d take a vacation,” Schmoll recalled. “She’d put a pack on her back and spend time wandering around in the High Sierra. That was her thing. She was happiest by herself wandering around in the wild. That was when she was in her prime.”
‘The Petroleum Girl’
Early on, Foster explored her love for geology at the University of Michigan as a science and math major, prior to obtaining a master’s degree and doctorate in geology.
When required to attend a biology field course as an undergraduate, she managed to sneak into a geology field course instead and spent time at Camp Davis near Jackson Hole, Wyo. – one of few camps that allowed women at the time.
Foster later returned and helped teach with a former professor.
Also offered at the University of Michigan during World War II was a two-year course for women working on college degrees who wanted to enter the oil and gas industry.
Those pursuing the track were called “the petroleum girls,” Foster recalled, adding that many companies were eager to hire the women, as most men were away at war.
With so many opportunities for female geologists and other scientists around her at the time, it is no wonder Foster proclaimed, “I’ve always had good experiences. I’ve never felt like the odd man out.”
In fact, while in Japan, Foster credits herself and other American female geologists for encouraging Japanese professors to open the doors of geology to female students – a thought even more outrageous in ultra-conservative Asia at the time.
“There were about three female students who went out into the field,” she said. “I think we had some influence on it.”
Schmoll recalls all the Christmas cards he has received from Foster over the years – each one capturing her in a far-away land she chose for geological field trips or vacations.
When she was 93, a card arrived in Schmoll’s mail with a photo of her near the peak of an Alaskan mountain named after the late Marvin Warbelow, a well-known bush pilot.
“You could get fairly high up in an all-terrain vehicle, but the rest of the way you had to hike,” Schmoll said. “That’s the kind of person Helen was.”
Although Foster retired in 1986, geology is still very much a part of her life. She often partakes in “sightseeing geology” trips in Nevada and continues to hike and ski in the winter.
“There are so many aspects of geology and still so many opportunities for discoveries to find out about the Earth,” she said. “Geology affects all aspects of people’s lives. Knowledge of the Earth can contribute in many ways to the betterment of life.”