By Emily Greenhalgh
Cornelia M. Clapp (born in 1849) was a prominent zoologist and educator, the first woman in the United States to get a doctorate in biology, and an integral member of the Marine Biological Laboratory. Clapp was one of seven educators present for MBL’s inaugural season in 1888 and, at that time, was a highly regarded teacher of zoology and embryology at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
Clapp began her MBL career as a student and investigator, but went on to serve as lecturer, the institution’s first librarian, and finally a trustee from 1910 until her death in 1934.
Clapp earned both the first and second Ph.D. in biology degrees awarded to women in the United States, in 1889 from Syracuse University and 1896 from the University of Chicago, under MBL founding director C.O. Whitman. Her thesis provided the first description of the lateral line system in adult toadfish. The lateral line (also called the “lateral line system” or “lateral line organ”) is a system of sense organs that enables fish to detect movement, vibration, and pressure gradients in the water. It is still studied by biologists today.
“Dr. Cornelia M. Clapp was always a beneficent presence at the Marine Biological Laboratory from the day of its opening in 1888,” former MBL Director Frank R. Lillie wrote in the May 1935 issue of The Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly. “In the first annual report her name appears as investigator. From that time until 1934, the year of her death, very few indeed were the sessions not graced by her presence.
“Enthusiasm and loyal devotion, humor, modesty and wisdom combined to make her a unique personality, respected and beloved by all her associates,” wrote Lillie.
Clapp came to the MBL nearly every summer from 1881 until her death. She would have been 171 years old today.
Learn more about the women of science at the MBL.