Girls Who Looked Under Rocks

The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists illus. by Paula Conner (Dawn Publications, 2000).
NSTA-CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for 2001

Finalist for the ASPCA Henry Bergh Award for Humane Heroes
Silver Benjamin Franklin Award for Young Adult Book
CBC Choices 2001

Women and men have always explored the natural world, but biographies have often stressed the life-risking adventures of men crossing oceans or scaling mountains or surviving extreme climates. I grew up learning about the Lewis and Clark expedition, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I heard much about Sacajawea’s role as wilderness guide. Some of women’s outdoor challenges are different than those men have faced, and I wrote Girls Who Looked Under Rocks to bring more attention to women who pushed past discouragement and used their curiosity and passionate intelligence to break into new fields. Even today women comprise only about ten per cent of those who choose careers in science. I hope the naturalists who put animals -- from bumble bees to chimpanzees -- at the center of their lives will inspire more girls to follow their lead as scientists, explorers, and conservationists.


Girls Who Looked Under Rocks profiles six naturalists, including:

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was an artist and scientist who’s known to us today mostly because of the beautiful paintings she left of plants and insects. In 1699, she sailed from Europe to South America to study and paint insects. You may see some samples of her artwork at the National Museum of Women in the Arts site at:
Anna Botsford Comstock (1854-1930) helped found the movement to teach nature in schools. She was the first woman professor at Cornell University, where she taught entomology.

Fran Hamerstrom (1907-1998) left a modeling career to spend many hours of many days over many years watching prairie chickens. Her close observations not only saved the lives of birds in the midwest, but helped us understand how destruction of habitat endangers animals.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964) loved language as well as science; she claimed she couldn’t write truthfully about the sea without writing poetry. Silent Spring, in which she spoke for the birds endangered by human carelessness, helped begin today’s environmental movements.
Jane Goodall (1934-) used the patience she practiced as a girl watching animals on a farm in England when she traveled to Africa to study chimpanzees. She continues to devote her life to the well-being of these forest animals, as she travels around the world lecturing about how to make the world safe for all animals.

Miriam Rothschild (1908-) became renowned as a scientist for investigating the lives of fleas. She discovered over 3,000 species! After World War II, she became alarmed by the way plowing down old meadows destroyed wildflowers and insects that depended on each other. Miriam Rothschild promotes planting “butterfly gardens” and other means to preserve wild flowers and animals.

I was a girl who looked under rocks, but I found science less intriguing by middle school, when we stopped planting beans in eggshells and collecting and pressing leaves, and when science became split from story. I’d like to see biography become a greater part of science curriculums. I was thrilled to hear of one middle school teacher who read sections from Girls Who Looked Under Rocks on “Read Across America Day.” Please check the Dawn Publications web-site at for suggestions about ways to use books to enrich nature study and to find links with organizations that promote ways to save the earth.

To learn more about other women naturalists, look for Women Pioneers for the Environment by Mary Joy Breton, which offers many short, clear profiles. Earthkeepers: Observers and Protectors of Nature by Ann T. Keene includes lots of photographs and essays about men and women “earthkeepers.” The bibliography in Girls Who Looked Under Rocks offers more suggestions.

There are few renderings of some of the naturalists who lived over a century ago, but Paula Conner took a very close at these sources to make charcoal drawings of the women at work. Paula skillfully studied the women’s features and transposed them using models; members of her family helped by posing so she could study the way an elbow bent or the shapes of fingers on a microscope. In addition to her work as an illustrator, Paula is a portrait artist. You can look at examples of her artwork at:

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