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The Living Sea: How a Group of Women Botanists Proved that Coral Reefs are Alive, 1880-1930

October 11, 2019, 3:00 pm - 4:00 pm


The lecture

Coral reefs are currently threatened with “functional collapse,” a result of global climate change.[i] Though reefs cover less than 2 percent of the ocean floor, they support nearly 25 percent of ocean species, making their potential collapse a catastrophic event for the world’s biodiversity and the people who depend on reef ecosystems.[ii] The paradox of the coral reef ecosystem lies in its immense diversity and productivity despite the nutrient poor environment in which it exists. Much of this productivity is due to algae: “two-thirds of coral reef productivity is attributed to endosymbiotic dinoflagellates and one-third to other algae.”[iii] But the history of how scientists came to understand coral reefs has focused on their geological structure and distribution, and not their functions of life. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, algologists (a botanist who studies algae, also called phycologists) conducted research on the multiple ecological roles of algae on coral reefs. This talk explores how algologists, and in particular Anna Weber-van Bosse (1852-1942) and Ethel Barton Gepp (1864-1922), reframed the discussion of coral reefs from geological structures to living units, thus shaping the modern concept of the reef ecosystem.

Anna Weber-van Bosse was the first woman to be included as an official member of the scientific staff of an oceanographic expedition. She was responsible for studying the marine flora during the Siboga expedition (1899-1900), a Dutch government sponsored scientific exploration of the deep and shallow oceans of the East Indies Archipelago (modern day Indonesia). The year-long expedition made extensive collections of the marine plants and animals, and the resulting publications yielded 148 individual reports, published between 1901 and 1970. The Linda Hall Library holds the largest collection of the Siboga reports in the United States. Some of the Siboga reports will be on display during the lecture.

[i] O. Hoegh-Guldberg, P J Mumby, A J Hooten, R S Steneck, P Greenfield, E Gomez, C D Harvell, et al, “Coral Reefs Under Rapid Climate Change and Ocean Acidification,” Science 318 (2007): 1737-1742, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/318/5857/1737.abstract.
[ii] The Smithsonian Ocean Portal Team, “Introduction: Corals and Coral Reefs,” reviewed by Nancy Knowlton, https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/invertebrates/corals-and-coral-reefs.
[iii] Linda Graham, James Graham and Lee Wilcox, Algae, second edition, San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings: 2009, p. 548.

The speaker

Emily Hutcheson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in History of Science. She holds an MA in History of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an MA in History and Philosophy of Science from Florida State University, and a BA in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Yale University. Her dissertation is on the history of coral reef science traces how reefs came to be seen as living communities between 1880 and 1930, through the work of a self-organized network of scientists.



If you are unable to attend the lecture in person, you can watch a live broadcast from the Library’s Facebook page or via livestream.com.


Parking is free in Library parking lots and along the west side of Holmes Street between 51st and 52nd streets. The main entrance to the Library grounds is on Cherry Street. The Linda Hall Library is not affiliated with UMKC. Parking in all UMKC lots is by permit or meter.


October 11, 2019
3:00 pm - 4:00 pm
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Linda Hall Library
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Linda Hall Library
5109 Cherry Street
Kansas City, MO 64110 United States
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Questions? Contact Eric Ward at 816.926.8753 for more information about these events.

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