Sex Determination and Nettie Maria Stevens, Another Google Doodle and Bryn Mawr Ph.D
Multiple theories about what determines sex were tested at the turn of the twentieth century. By experimenting on germ cells, cytologist Nettie Maria Stevens collected evidence to support the connection between heredity and the sex of offspring. Stevens was able to interpret her data to conclude that chromosomes have a role in sex determination during development. For her time, she was an emerging breed: a woman of science making the leap from the world of data collection to that of male-dominated interpretive work.
Stevens was born in Cavendish, Vermont, on 7 July 1861 to Julia Adams and Ephraim Stevens. In 1870 her father, by then widowed and remarried, moved to Westford, Vermont, with his new wife and four children to take up a job with the Townhouse Building Committee. In Westford, Nettie performed well in public school, achieving perfect attendance and making the honor roll. She then moved on to college preparatory studies at the Westford Academy, also in Westford. The school was eclectic, teaching everything from Greek language to music, and accepting of both genders and various nationalities. Both Nettie and her sister Emma received near-perfect grades, and they became two out of only three women to graduate from Westford in an eleven-year period.
Stevens moved to Lebanon, New Hampshire, to teach high school zoology, physiology, math, English, and Latin. After three terms, she returned to Vermont to continue her academic career. At Westfield Normal School, in Massachusetts, Stevens studied under science professors including Joseph Scott, Frederick Staebner, and Walter Barrows. She received the highest academic in her class of thirty and finished four years of coursework in just two. After graduation she taught school for many years before enrolling at Stanford University in 1896.
At Stanford, Stevens worked with professor Oliver Pebbles Jenkins and majored in physiology. She became increasingly focused onhistology after working with Jenkins’s former student, and assistant professor, Frank Mace Macfarland. Macfarland was also an instructor at Hopkins Seaside Laboratory, where Stevens spent four summers performing histological and cytological research. She would later continue her research at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1901. During the fall and winter of that year, Stevens visited the Naples Zoological Station and the Zoological Institute of the University of Wurzberg, Germany. At Wurzberg, Stevens studied under Theodore Boveri, who was studying the role of chromosomes in heredity. This no doubt contributed to Stevens’s interest in chromosome research.
Stevens completed both her BA (1899) and MA (1900) at Stanford. In 1903, she graduated with her PhD from Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was at Bryn Mawr that Stevens first met biology professors Thomas Hunt Morgan and Edmund Beecher Wilson. Morgan and Wilson both sent letters of recommendation to the Carnegie Institution of Washington on behalf of Stevens, since she was seeking funding for research on heredity related to Mendel’s laws. Stevens specifically wanted to investigate sex determination and after receiving a grant from the Carnegie Institution, she used germ cells of aphids to examine possible variation in chromosome structure between the two sexes.
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