Pioneer Geologists: Soaring Beyond the Glass Ceiling

Flying Florences took off in Alaska

They were known as the “Flying Florences” in the geological world of Alaska – a nickname so fitting it smacked of the obvious, yet still piqued all kinds of curiosity on the North Slope.

In the 1950s, as crews of men braved the hostile climate of the Brooks Range exploring for oil and gas, Florence Weber (nee Robinson) and Florence Collins (nee Rucker) appeared out of nowhere from the sky – steering a Super Cub floatplane over the mountains and landing on the interior lakes of Alaska.

The two were young geologists and pilots, and – aside from wells that struck oil – were the talk of any place north of the Arctic Circle.

Attractive, ambitious and immune to the notion of a woman’s place, they trod on fraternal grounds as if they were one of the boys.

“Just being two women in this field – that was unusual enough,” said Hank Schmoll, a scientist emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Denver, who recalled hearing about the Florences before beginning his career in Alaska in 1955.

“Some of the guys would perhaps semi-snort at them,” he said. “What are these gals doing? Nobody ever said that, but I’m reading between the lines, so to speak.”

With their plane, the two best friends could reach places their male counterparts could not. Prior to a determined Weber landing her first field job, she and Collins often gave male geologists lifts to and from spike camps prior to the days of helicopter support. They battled Alaska’s harsh weather conditions and their small aircraft’s frequent need for refueling in areas where fuel was scant.

“It was really quite a feat to fly around Alaska,” said AAPG member Helen Foster, a retired geologist with the USGS in Alaska (see September EXPLORER). “They were a great curiosity at the time.”

Invading a Man’s World

While getting a plane off a runway requires a standard set of maneuvers in a cockpit, having a geological career take off in Alaska was anything but easy for Weber and Collins.

Their mission started at the University of Chicago, where they initially met as sophomores and simultaneously earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology in the 1940s.

A professor once “stuck them aside” as lab partners, thinking they wouldn’t get very far in their careers, said Shirley Liss, a friend of the pair who are now 93 and reside at an assisted living facility in Fairbanks.

(Weber, a former AAPG member, is battling dementia. Collins is more quiet and not as eager to speak about her legendary days.)

Fresh out of college, both accepted jobs as geologists for two years at Shell Oil in Houston in 1943 when there was a shortage of men during World War II. After visiting a local exhibit of U.S. war planes – intended to encourage citizens to invest in war bonds in an act of patriotism – the women instead felt a desire to obtain pilot licenses.

“Gas rationing meant no fuel for a car, but they could buy gas for a plane,” wrote Collins’ daughter, Julie Collins, in a 2011 tribute to her mother in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “By the time the pair learned to drive in 1947, they had already flown from Texas to Florida.”

After a summer road trip during graduate school on the newly opened Alaska Highway – constructed during World War II to connect the continental United States with Alaska – the pair decided they wanted to live there and bask in its open space and beauty. In 1949, both landed jobs with the USGS in Fairbanks performing microscopic rock core analysis in an office.

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They were known as the “Flying Florences” in the geological world of Alaska – a nickname so fitting it smacked of the obvious, yet still piqued all kinds of curiosity on the North Slope.

In the 1950s, as crews of men braved the hostile climate of the Brooks Range exploring for oil and gas, Florence Weber (nee Robinson) and Florence Collins (nee Rucker) appeared out of nowhere from the sky – steering a Super Cub floatplane over the mountains and landing on the interior lakes of Alaska.

The two were young geologists and pilots, and – aside from wells that struck oil – were the talk of any place north of the Arctic Circle.

Attractive, ambitious and immune to the notion of a woman’s place, they trod on fraternal grounds as if they were one of the boys.

“Just being two women in this field – that was unusual enough,” said Hank Schmoll, a scientist emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Denver, who recalled hearing about the Florences before beginning his career in Alaska in 1955.

“Some of the guys would perhaps semi-snort at them,” he said. “What are these gals doing? Nobody ever said that, but I’m reading between the lines, so to speak.”

With their plane, the two best friends could reach places their male counterparts could not. Prior to a determined Weber landing her first field job, she and Collins often gave male geologists lifts to and from spike camps prior to the days of helicopter support. They battled Alaska’s harsh weather conditions and their small aircraft’s frequent need for refueling in areas where fuel was scant.

“It was really quite a feat to fly around Alaska,” said AAPG member Helen Foster, a retired geologist with the USGS in Alaska (see September EXPLORER). “They were a great curiosity at the time.”

Invading a Man’s World

While getting a plane off a runway requires a standard set of maneuvers in a cockpit, having a geological career take off in Alaska was anything but easy for Weber and Collins.

Their mission started at the University of Chicago, where they initially met as sophomores and simultaneously earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology in the 1940s.

A professor once “stuck them aside” as lab partners, thinking they wouldn’t get very far in their careers, said Shirley Liss, a friend of the pair who are now 93 and reside at an assisted living facility in Fairbanks.

(Weber, a former AAPG member, is battling dementia. Collins is more quiet and not as eager to speak about her legendary days.)

Fresh out of college, both accepted jobs as geologists for two years at Shell Oil in Houston in 1943 when there was a shortage of men during World War II. After visiting a local exhibit of U.S. war planes – intended to encourage citizens to invest in war bonds in an act of patriotism – the women instead felt a desire to obtain pilot licenses.

“Gas rationing meant no fuel for a car, but they could buy gas for a plane,” wrote Collins’ daughter, Julie Collins, in a 2011 tribute to her mother in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “By the time the pair learned to drive in 1947, they had already flown from Texas to Florida.”

After a summer road trip during graduate school on the newly opened Alaska Highway – constructed during World War II to connect the continental United States with Alaska – the pair decided they wanted to live there and bask in its open space and beauty. In 1949, both landed jobs with the USGS in Fairbanks performing microscopic rock core analysis in an office.

They envied the men who mapped outcrops in the “exotic far north,” Julie Collins wrote.

And if the USGS would not send them into the field, they decided they were going to send themselves. The Florences bought a new, two-place Cessna 140 for $3,800 for taking weekend trips to Nome, Kotzebue, Anaktuvuk Pass and Canada.

Starting in Kansas, they made their way back to Fairbanks via Texas – hardly a beeline, but a path that clearly revealed a spirit for adventure.

That same spirit was captured in a 20-page article by National Geographic magazine in 1957 after Weber and Collins, four female friends and one lone male decided to take a roughly 700-mile kayak trip down the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Eagle.

The pinnacle of the trip was reported in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

“The highlight of the first part of the trip, they said, was shooting the Five Finger Rapids of the Yukon. And they reported it was ‘such an exciting adventure’ that they hoofed back a few miles and did it a second time.”

Longing for Home

Weber and Collins spent the early part of their careers in Alaska studying the structure and stratigraphy of test wells in the Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 (NPR-4) on the North Slope, said Ric Wilson, a USGS research geologist and former assistant to Weber.

NPR-4 consisted of several petroleum and oil reserves and was established in 1923 by the federal government to secure fuel for both world wars. The Florences analyzed well cores, chips and logs for reservoir potential in formations.

When the USGS’s Navy Oil Unit’s Fairbanks office closed, the women were relocated in 1954 to Washington, D.C., where they wrote reports on their findings of the test wells – all while itching to return to Alaska.

Some say a USGS grant for a new study in Alaska paved their way back two years later. Others say they purchased their Super Cub floatplane and made a deal with the USGS to transport male geologists into Alaska’s interior.

However things happened, the Florences flew 5,000 miles from the Potomac River to the Mackenzie Delta in northwestern Canada and down to Fairbanks.

“The sight of a floatplane in remote, isolated villages provoked no surprise, but people were shocked to see the two daring, young women piloting the lanky craft,” Julie Collins wrote.

And so the two women, who purchased a cabin in Lake Minchumina during their first stint in Alaska, settled in for a second time.

Pushing for a Career

The Florences landed their seaplane on many an undiscovered lake upon their return to Alaska in 1956, naming many of them in the process, Julie Collins wrote.

Several years later, though, Collins married and had three children – and found she preferred married life to geological work.

One might reasonably conclude her decision was based on her inability to get a job in the field.

“We were annoyed. We were disgusted,” she said in a telephone interview of her and Weber’s plight to work under the vast canopy of Alaskan sky. “Girls weren’t supposed to be able to do fieldwork, but we thought we were capable of doing that.”

Collins did produce a USGS report on a vegetated dune field in interior Alaska based on some work she performed in the field. Weber, on the other hand, was determined to pioneer a career that would take her from the office into the field, even after marrying several years later herself.

While working in the NPR-4, Weber and Collins co-authored a paper suggesting that a large subsurface crater near Point Barrow into which the Avak well was drilled was likely formed by the impact of a large meteor – a theory considered far-fetched in its day.

“I don’t know this for certain, but I suspect that interpretations such as this were probably way too controversial for USGS editors at the time,” said AAPG member Gil Mull, retired employee of the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys. “The Florences’ interpretations were not included in the formal report on the exploratory wells drilled at Barrow and Avak.”

However, more recent studies of the area by geologists Arthur Banet, Tom Homza and Robert Swenson, all AAPG members, give substantial amount of support to these interpretations, Mull said.

“The significant thing in my estimation is that the Florences – two women in the USGS, an organization that at the time was predominantly a man’s world – did some really detailed work that revealed a lot of innovative thinking, some of which was way ahead of its time,” he added.

Weber produced a number of studies beginning in the late 1950s that explored various routes for numerous proposed roads across Alaska, including a road to Nome.

“The road to Nome should be of particular interest to the state today,” said Wilson, explaining the state is finally considering building it.

Weber also added to the knowledge of the regional bedrock geology of interior Alaska – working with renowned geologists Troy L. Péwé and Clyde Wahrhaftig – and eventually published a map of the Fairbanks quadrangle in 1966.

“To this day,” Wilson said, “it’s the only Fairbanks quadrangle map we have.”

Moving full steam ahead, Weber produced engineering geologic maps in 1971 for the TransAlaska Pipeline route from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.

She also co-authored a preliminary geologic map of the Livengood quadrangle, which was published in 1971 as well.

In 1986, she returned to the Livengood area as a project leader for the Alaska Mineral Resource Assessment Program and produced a much more detailed map, Wilson said. In a nod to her efforts, a Middle Devonian gastropod of the Livengood quadrangle was named after her by AAPG member Robert B. Blodgett, a consulting geologist and paleontologist in Alaska.

He called it the “Mastigospira weberae.”

Thinking Outside the Box

In the mid-1980s Weber shared what some might consider eccentric insights regarding surficial deposits, namely gold, in the lower parts of rivers on the Alaska Peninsula. While it was commonly held that the deposits came from headwaters, Weber argued that the offshore, heavily mineralized Unga Island was actually the source of the deposits.

She believed they were carried by glaciers moving from the offshore island before their deposition in the lower reaches of the mainland rivers, Wilson said.

Her reasoning was based on her belief that glaciers from the Pacific Ocean flowed northward, pushing toward the mountains of Alaska.

In her day, glacier movement was thought to be the opposite. Her theory later proved to be true.

“Florence has had just incredible insights into such a broad range of geology that I just can’t imagine anyone better,” Wilson said. “She was my idol.”

Further flooring her colleagues, Weber dared to suggest that the Tintina Fault System did not rotate around a bend in the subsurface of the Livengood quadrangle, as was commonly believed. Rather, Weber surmised that the fault originated in British Columbia and developed a series of overthrusts in Alaska’s interior.

She concluded that the Denali Fault system acted similarly, in part explaining the terrific height of Mount McKinley, Wilson explained.

“Alaska is an incredibly mobile place,” he said. “Everything is moving around. People who were knowledgeable of that part of Alaska probably got what she was saying, but people who approached things from a more general perspective probably didn’t get it. She outlasted most of the people who didn’t believe her.”

Having forever changed the way aspects of Alaskan geology are viewed, and as author or co-author of more than 100 publications on Alaska geology, Weber was awarded an honorary doctorate degree in science from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1987.

“She was as dedicated a geologist as you will ever find,” Foster said.

In Wilson’s eyes, both Florences were making their way through life simply doing what they liked to do. “They weren’t out to make history, and they never tooted their own horn,” he said. “It was more like, ‘What’s over the next ridge? What are we going to do next?’”

When Wilson took Weber to the Fairbanks airport in the 1990s to catch a flight, he showed her a large display of Alaskan pioneering aviators that included a picture of her.

“I’m no pioneer,” she rebuffed. “I’m not that old.” She was in her 70s at the time.

“The insights that Florence had into the geology of the state were built upon by a lot of people. I think we probably only know a small portion of what she figured out,” Wilson said. “I miss being able to bounce things off her. I wish we could still talk to her, and learn more, but we can’t.”

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Comments (1)

Some of my fondest memories are of letters that Florence (Weber) wrote to my mom while I was a child. My brother and I would sit at the dinner table, completely spellbound as we listened to her accounts of her life in Alaska. The moose jumping the garden fence to eat all of the cabbages; the river trips that she, Al, and friends enjoyed (and she used to explore more of the area's geology); their husky, and her and Al's volunteer work for the Yukon Quest; nights spent on the tundra while doing field work, huddled close to the fire, rifle in hand, watching glowing eyes of wolves as they circled the campsite. Her life has been the greatest adventure, and she did much to pave the way for many young women who wish to become scientists, geologists in particular.
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10/20/2015 9:19:17 AM

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