Amherst College’s records are filled with names that would seem unusual today, like Preserved Smith (grandfather – 1828, grandson – 1901), or Heman Humphrey (2nd college president, 1823-1845). It’s less common to come across a name that stands out because it sounds modern to our ears. I was surprised when I found letters to a Crystal Thompson, curator of the Zoological Collection—written in 1923.
At first, I thought that the name might be an example of a name’s gender association changing, as with the name Leslie1, because the first letter, from Feb. 20, 1923, was addressed, “Dear Sir.”
However, the second letter (sent Mar. 13, 1923) was addressed to Miss Thompson. Now I was very curious.
Here was someone even more unusual—a woman working as curator of Amherst’s natural history collections. These letters are in the Department of Biology collection, with others concerning laboratory and museum supplies and material orders.
The Amherst College Biographical Record, which lists alumnae/i, college administration, and faculty, had no listing for Crystal Thompson, but the Amherst College Catalog for 1919 shows Crystal Thompson, M.A. as Curator of the Zoological Collection (as well as one Harriet Oakes Rogers, B.S., as Curator in the Chemistry Laboratory).
With a bit more research in the Board of Trustees’ Minutes, I found that Crystal Thompson had come to Amherst from the University of Michigan. Their online yearbooks and other digital collections revealed that she had received her B.S. in 1909, her M.A. in 1910, and worked as an assistant in the Zoology Museum from 1911-1919. She co-authored several publications on regional reptiles and snakes, and their archives (via the Bentley Historical Library Image Bank, which is a digital library like our own Amherst College Digital Collections site, ACDC), has this 1918 photograph.
She worked here at Amherst from 1919-1927, then returned to Michigan to be the curator of visual education when they opened a new museum building. She spent the rest of her career at Michigan, retiring in 1958.
There’s a lot that remains unknown about women employed here at Amherst College, especially before the 1940s. The first woman hired to teach was Madeleine Utter, as an interim French instructor just for the 1918-1919 academic year. Crystal Thompson was hired as curator the next year, along with Harriet Rogers for the Chemistry Laboratory.
As World War 1 was underway, there may have been a relative shortage of male candidates available, creating opportunity for these women at Amherst. Thompson’s arrival could also have resulted from the hiring of Professor Otto Glaser (who had been at the University of Michigan) as Chair of the Biology Department in 1918.
From around 1914 or so, the secretary to the President and other administrative positions are listed in the college catalogs, and names like Gertrude and Esther begin to appear. A systematic listing has not been created, but the catalogs are always available for anyone who is curious.
1. In 1900, Leslie was the 91st most popular boy’s name, while in 1997 (the last year it was within the top 1000, it was 881. As a girl’s name, Leslie was 646 in 1900, jumped sharply in the 1940s to the top 200, and remained there (hitting 56 in 1981) until 2010, when it began falling in popularity. You can search for any name at “Popular Baby Names.” Social Security Administration, 2017.