Women in Herpetology: Grace Olive Wiley (1883 - 1948)
In honor of World Snake Day, we bring to you a special Historical Femme Feature: 19th century American entomologist and herpetologist Grace Olive Wiley!
Grace Olive Wiley was an early 20th century entomologist and herpetologist from the United States who is best known for work showing reptiles in a positive light to the public, especially venomous snakes, and is the first person to ever successfully breed rattlesnakes in captivity.
Grace was born and raised on a farm in Chanute, Kansas. She remained in state to attend the University of Kansas, where she graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Entomology (the study of insects). In 1922, she published her first scientific paper on via the Kansas University Bulletin, entitled "Life History Notes on Two Species of Saldidae (Hemiptera) Found in Kansas". The following year, Grace became curator of the Minneapolis Public Library Natural History Museum, and published her second scientific paper via The Canadian Entomologist announcing her discovery of "A New Spcies of Rheumatobates from Texas".
While Grace had trained as an entomologist, she was also very interested in reptiles. She had been building up a personal collection which included many types of venomous snakes. Grace's methods of handling her snakes were controversial, as she refused to use any safety devices in order to prove that venomous snakes were harmless if properly trained. In 1933, Wiley left her position at the Minneapolis Library to become the Curator of Reptiles at the newly opened Brookfield Zoo where she developed new, naturalistic settings for reptiles to replace the traditional metal cages in which they had been held.
A few years later, Grace moved to California where she opened her own personal reptile zoo near Los Angeles and began a third career as a snake trainer and reptile consultant for Hollywood agencies. She worked on films such as The Jungle Book, Tarzan, The Cobra Woman, and Moon Over Burma (in which she had a small acting role as a snake charmer!).
Grace's life came to an end in 1948 when a photographer's flash spooked her venomous Indian Cobra, causing him to bite her. Because no antivenom was available, Grace died shortly thereafter. While Grace's open handling methods remain controversial (this style of snake handling is not endorsed by most herpetological societies), the snake breeding methods she developed are still used to ensure good health in snakes in captivity today.
Sources and Further Reading
Female Entomologist: Grace Olive Wiley (1993 - 1948). 2014. Becky Fisher. Tri-Trophic Thematic Collection Network, American Museum of Natural History
Grace Olive Wiley: Zoo Curator with Safety Issues. 2005. James N Murphy and David E Jaques. Herpetological Review.
Death From Snakebite: The Entwined Histories of Grace Olive Wiley and Wesley H. Dickinson. 2006. James B. Murphy et al. Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society.
Michelle Barboza-Ramirez is the founder and host of the Femmes of STEM podcast. She is a latinx Los Angeles native currently living in North Florida, where she attends the University of Florida. Michelle is currently working towards a Masters in Science in vertebrate paleontology + a certificate in women's studies.
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