Following the US Civil War, Graceanna Lewis tried to take her passion for science and make an academic career from it. A self-taught naturalist, she published a book on the natural history of birds. Her intent was to make a series of books about the natural history of the animal kingdom, but the bird book was the only one to get published. She also applied for a professorship position at Vassar College but never received a job teaching at the college level.
The problem for Graceanna was that she saw science as a means to search for God. In the era following the Civil War, scientists did not approve of that approach. Deborah Jean Warner is a biographer. She says that science was not an end of itself. Instead, it revealed God’s order and allowed for a deeper “awareness and appreciation of Him.”
Lewis was also convinced that it was important to teach ordinary people as much as it was important to press forward in the search for knowledge. This was not a popular opinion to the academics of the time.
Lewis was born to John and Esther (Fussell) Lewis at the family farm, Sunnyside. The Quaker couple had four daughters, including Graceanna. When she was three, her father died of typhus which he contracted while helping an infected African-American couple that everyone else had refused to help. His family had no regrets, holding his selfless act of benevolence in the highest esteem.
Growing up, the Lewis women were involved in abolitionist activities. Dozens, maybe more, runaway slaves passed through Sunnyside as they headed north. Quaker meetings and abolitionist functions were their main social activities. Warner believes that part of the reason the Lewis’s were so involved was the “sense of self-righteousness and martyrdom” they received from it.
In 1832, Esther Lewis sent her daughters to listen to a lecturer discuss natural philosophy. The girls were thrilled by the steam-powered model of the solar system he displayed. They also were able to see a microscope and a telescope. Two years later, they attended an exhibit of wild foreign animals. Their mother believed that the experiences would expand their understanding of the God that created all of these things.
The Lewis girls attended a boarding school run by Emmor and Susan Kimber. Their daughter, Abigail, was a botanist. It was she that got Graceanna interested in the sciences.
Only one of the Lewis sisters married. To take care of the sisters, Esther divided the farm, giving part to the married couple and building a house on the rest for the other three sisters. In 1847, Esther died and the next fifteen years of Graceanna’s life were spent farming.
By the time the Civil War ended, Lewis’s two unmarried sisters had also died. At the age of 45, Lewis devoted herself to the study of ornithology. She would sit under a cherry tree and watch the birds eat the fruit. After studying with other amateur Quaker bird watchers, she was referred to John Cassin who was the curator of birds at the Academy of Natural Sciences. He was also the author of Lewis’s favorite reference, The Birds of North America.
Cassin made the resources of the academy available to Lewis. He also referred her to other collections and other mentors. In 1865, she began offering ornithology classes to her neighbors. Cassin allowed her to use his name as a reference in her brochures.
Working with Cassin, she noticed bird variations that he missed and even discovered a new species, Agelaius cyanopus, a type of blackbird.
After Cassin died in 1869, Lewis never found another mentor.
Lewis’s rise as an amateur naturalist coincided with the increasing professionalism of the sciences. Looking to weed out the charlatans, the new mentality also made it difficult for aspiring amateurs to break into the field.
In 1876, Lewis was ranked the second most important female scientist in a list of American women. But due to her uncompromising view that science should be taught to the average citizen rather than used only to teach those going into the field professionally, she never was able to make a career of her interests.
In 1869, Lewis attended a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She never joined and she never attended another meeting. It appears that her speculations about the theological implications of her findings were frowned upon by the association members. She apparently took the criticism personally, Main Line Today reported.
Lewis instead became a popularizer, taking her findings directly to the public and skipping academia. She eventually moved into media as a crusader for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She also wrote about science for Christian journals until her death.