Forgotten women of Paleontology: Esther Richards Applin

Esther Richards Applin, 1944-1972. From Wikimedia Commons

In the 18th and 19th centuries women’s access to science was limited, and science was usually a ‘hobby’ for intelligent wealthy women. But at the beginning of 20th century, many universities started admitting women, with different motivations, including the lack of men following WWI and the Soviet Revolution. Later, the boom in the oil industry opened opportunities for women.
In 1920, E. T. Dumble, vice-president and general manager of the Rio Bravo Oil Company, put together a consortium agreement in Houston, which included his own company, the Texas Company, and Humble Oil Company. He hired Esther Applin née Richards, Alva Ellisor, and Hedwig Kniker to take charge of the company’s paleontological laboratory in Houston and solve the Gulf Coast stratigraphic problems. Macrofossils were too badly broken to be identifiable as to species, so Esther Applin turned her attention to the microfossils, especially foraminifera. It was the beggining of the micropaleontological revolution.

Esther Richards was born November 24, 1895, in in Newark, Ohio. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated with honors in paleontology in 1919. A year later, she moved to Houston to work for the Rio Bravo Oil company. In 1923, she married Paul L. Applin, a young geologist. In 1921, Esther presented a paper suggesting that microfossils could be use to stratigraphic correlation. Her study was ridiculed by Professor J.J. Galloway of the University of Texas, who stated: “Gentlemen, here is this chit of a girl, right out of college, telling us that we can use Foraminifera to determine the age of formation. Gentlemen, you know that it can’t be done.

From left to right: Esther Richards, John Suman, James L. Ballard, Alva Ellisor at Hidalgo Bluff near the Brazos River Botton. (From R.R.Gries. 2018)

In 1924, at a meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), Alva Ellisor, Esther Applin née Richards, and Hedwig Kniker presented their seminal paper: Subsurface stratigraphy o f the Coastal Plain of Texas and Louisiana. Since then, Micropaleontology was quickly embraced by industry, and even Galloway became a defender of this method. However, the role of these women was downplayed over time, and by 1975 the credit for this technology was shifted to four men.

Esther continued her work as a consulting paleontologist and subsurface geologist in Texas. She become a Fellow of The Geological Society of America, a charter member of the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, and a member o f the Mississippi Geological Society. In 1966, in recognition of her contributions to micropaleontology, she was made an honorary member o f the Mississippi Geological Society. She died on July 23, 1972.

References:

Richards Applin, Esther; Ellisor, Alva E.; Kniker, Hedwig T. (1925). “Subsurface Stratigraphy of the Coastal Plain of Texas and Louisiana”. American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin. 9 (1): 79–122.

Gries, Robbie Rice (2018). “How female geologists were written out of history: The micropaleontology breakthrough”. Women and Geology: Who Are We, Where Have We Come from, and Where Are We Going?. doi:10.1130/2018.1214(02).

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