Fridays with Fred: The life and times of the pioneering scientist Myrtle Shaw

Myrtle Shaw and her notes of art and script.

Securely knotted string ties the thick bundle of graph paper together, every page covered by flowing script, packed with meticulous notes about classic art. It is a relic that exemplifies the power of a liberal arts education. The Beloit College student who lovingly compiled the notes in her art history class almost a century ago did not go on to a career in the arts. Instead, she became one of the most eminent women scientists of her day.

Myrtle Shaw was born in Schiller Park, Ill., in 1897. After receiving straight As in high school, she journeyed north to Beloit College, entering in the fall of 1915. From the start she established a reputation for academic excellence. The college yearbook, The Codex, would later describe her as “So wise, and yet so young.” Although she had a strong inclination toward the sciences, her insatiable curiosity led her to dabble in a variety of subjects. A letter, written 70 years later, explained:

While I appreciate the science courses that led directly to my career, I value even more the courses not directly relevant to botany or science, but which enriched my life: a semester’s study of the plays of Shakespeare, a course in German with Professor Dubee, the time I spent translating Horace’s Odes and Epodes, and not least, Professor Wright’s wonderful course in Classic Art…

By sophomore year, while still attending classes full-time, the ambitious young woman moved off campus and worked outside jobs in order to earn money for room, board, and tuition. Even so, she remembered many good times, including picnics with friends at a nearby quarry, botanical field trips with Professor Hiram Densmore and the annual Logan Day in which Dean George Collie brewed coffee “in an enormous kettle.” She recalled the men leaving campus during World War I and the bumper crop of radishes she grew in her “Victory Garden” at the athletic field.

By junior and senior year, she lived and breathed Pearsons Hall of Science, as she recalled in a 1984 letter:

I am glad to know of the proposed renovation of Science Hall. I spent most of my waking hours there while at Beloit – Botany with Professor Densmore, Zoology with Professor Galloway, E.G. Smith and Torchie McLeod in Chemistry, Professor Culver in Physics. He was back from the army and “Major Culver” when I took his course in Physics. He brought his army discipline with him. When called upon in class we stood “at attention” while answering and remained thus until he gave us permission to sit down. And of course there was the course in Geology under Dean Collie…

Myrtle Shaw received her degree summa cum laude, the only student to achieve that distinction in 1919. The Phi Beta Kappan Beloiter won a scholarship for graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where a year later she earned her master’s degree in agricultural bacteriology. She returned to Beloit College for a three-year stint as an instructor in botany and then moved back to Madison, where she taught while working on her Ph.D., which she received in 1927.

Her subsequent work eventually drew her to a 35-year career as associate bacteriologist at the Division of Labs and Research, New York State Department of Health. Her in-depth research included major work in the field of neurotropic viruses and a groundbreaking study on the effect of toxins on living tissue.

“This has importance,” she later noted, “because it was ‘pioneer’ work done in the 1930s before the advent of antibiotics which so greatly stimulated the use of tissue culture as a laboratory method.” She published widely in scientific journals, and her valuable contributions to science led Who’s Who of American Women and American Men of Science to include her in their annual volumes. She never forgot the role that Beloit played in encouraging her to pursue a scientific career, exceedingly rare for a woman at that time. Her timeless story rings as true for Beloit today as it did then:

My career in bacteriology surely did begin at Beloit. In my senior year the college offered me one credit if I would study bacteriology independently for one term. With the encouragement of Prof Densmore and some very limited supplies, and a book on bacteriology by Heinemann, I studied various forms of bacteria and became so interested that when I was awarded the U of Wis scholarship, I concentrated on courses in Bacteriology and Plant Pathology to get my Master’s Degree. Prof. Densmore then offered me the post of instructor at Beloit and he and Pres Brannon asked me to organize a course in bacteriology, buying equipment and writing directions for laboratory exercises. Prof. Densmore became my first “student” so I could try out the laboratory exercises before actually giving the course to seven students that year.

After her retirement in 1965, Shaw traveled extensively and maintained diverse civic activities at home in Albany, N.Y. When the college offered her its highest alumni honor, the Distinguished Service Citation, she wrote to Alumni Director Joe Kobylka, “Your letter was a happy surprise.” She returned to campus and received her award on May 11, 1974. Some 15 years later she donated the thick ream of notes jotted down in Theodore Lyman Wright’s art history class. Shaw had saved and treasured her beloved notes for over 70 years, a fitting reminder of just how precious a liberal arts education is for developing an inquiring mind, for achieving a breadth of knowledge, and for gaining the life skills needed to lead both a successful and useful life.

November 22, 2013

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