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The Scottish American History Club Newsletter
April 1996

Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan was world-renowned as a premiere classical dancer. She was also a rebel and a controversial figure flouting the social mores and the dancing style of the times. She refused to be bound by the old rules that applied to both female behavior and dance forms.

She was born May 27, 1878, in San Francisco and in her biography she claims an Ulster-Scottish ancestry. She studied ballet as a child but soon decided to dance purely as natural movement dictated. She looked to nature for inspiration through what she claimed were its natural rhythms like ocean waves, for example.

She gave concerts in New York and Chicago before deciding to go to Europe about 1900. She was a success in Paris with appearances following in Budapest and Berlin. She was now giving serious attention to dancing as an art form.

When Isadora visited Russia in 1905, dance masters there were profoundly impressed by her style and innovation. Miss Duncan was one of the first dancers to interpret symphonic music via the dance. She was deeply influenced by Gluck, Brahms, Wagner, and Beethoven. More than a half century ahead of her time, she insisted on dancing barefoot in a skimpy free-flowing tunic that scandalized the public. But it did much to emancipate women from restrictive Victorian clothing.

Unmarried, she bore two children who were drowned in a tragic accident in 1913. This had a profound adverse affect on her psyche, but she married the Russian poet Sergei Esenin and continued her career.

Isadora Duncan died September 14, 1927 at Nice, France in another fatal accident. The long scarf she was wearing became entangled in a rear wheel of the open car in which she was riding. Isadora Duncan is a member of the Scottish-American Hall of Fame at the Scottish Home in North Riverside, Illinois.

More information can be found at the Isadora Duncan website.

Mrs. Joan Chalmers

In October, 1878, Joan Pinkerton, daughter of the late Allan Pinkerton, married William J. Chalmers. Their residence was 1100 Lake Shore Drive. She would have two children, Joan and Thomas Stuart. Her husband was the son of Thomas Chalmers who founded, along with David R. Fraser, the Fraser and Chalmers Company. This company had great shops in Chicago and Erith, near London, England. Their labor force once numbered 2,000 and was the largest manufacturer of mining machinery in the world.

In 1900, the Fraser and Chalmers Company united with the great Allis Engine Works at Milwaukee, and other plants, and became the Allis-Chalmers Co. William J. Chalmers became an officer in the new company.

John Drury in his book “Old Chicago Houses” says: “...Mrs. Chalmers, daughter of Allan Pinkerton, head of President Lincoln’s secret service agency during the Civil War, was known for her engaging personality. She was to become, like her husband, a philanthropist whose gifts were widespread and generous.” Mr. And Mrs. Chalmers were supporters and major contributors to the building of the Scottish Home.

Blanche Stuart Scott
*Someone You Should Know*

“The tomboy of the air” made her first solo flight September 5, 1910. “In those days” she recalled a few years ago, “they didn’t take you up in the air to teach you. They gave you a bit of preliminary ground training. They told you this and that. You got in. They kissed you good-bye, and trusted to luck you’d get back.”

Seated in what she called “an undertaker’s chair” in front of “a motor that sounded like a whirling bolt in a dish pan” Mrs. Scott, her bloomers filled with three petticoats, went aloft by accident. Her instructor, Glenn H. Curtiss, had governed her plane for “grasscutting”, taxiing up and down the field without taking off. While taxiing in her spidery contraption, a sudden gust of wind lifted her into the sky about 40 feet. “Yes” she said, “I got down all right. After that, I wasn’t going to stay on the ground anymore, and I never did.”

“Her aerial intrepidity had its origin in celebrity for adventures.” Only months before her solo flight, she had titillated the nation by driving across the country on mostly unpaved roads, the first woman to do so.

She was an outdoors enthusiast and was educated at the Misses School for Girls in Rochester, Howard Seminary in Massachusetts and Fort Edward College in New York. Blanche was a champion ice skater, and suffered injuries and wrecked several bicycles trying to become a trick bicyclist. She was in her own words, “a screwball then. I was a cocky kid of 18 and the whole thing was a lark.”

Her father, who had a patent medicine business in Rochester had raised her on the theme “Are you right? If you’re sure, give ‘em hell.”

As a young adult, she took a job in New York selling Overland automobiles. She persuaded the Overland Company to sponsor her on a cross-country drive which she planned to perform without any male assistance. In May 1910, she and a female passenger started their drive from New York to San Francisco. The trip covered 6,000 miles. On her sixth-day odyssey across the country, which was widely publicized at the time, she planned to drive through Dayton, Ohio, where the Wright brothers were teaching flying.

Soon after Blanche returned east, Mr. Curtiss found himself explaining the fundamentals of the infant science of aeronautics to the pert and petite young woman at his hanger in Hammondsport, N.Y.

She joined a group of barnstormers on the dare-devil circuit, expressing the hope that her stunts, which included “3,000-foot death dives,” would simulate more opportunities for women. For her aerobatics, she received as much as $5,000 a week. She crashed twice and explained one of them as “my fault, I was in love.”

After World War I, she gave up stunt flying and wrote for the movies for several years, became a radio commentator, an assistant manager of a radio station and then a special consultant for the Air Force for its museum at the Wright-Patterson Base, a position she held until 1956. “The budget dropped and so did I”, she said, “but I got the museum $1.25 million worth of precious historical material. I’m one of the world’s best chiselers.”

She is said to have been the first woman to ride in a jet plane, when she flew in a training version of the Shooting Star in 1948.

“God in his infinite wisdom,” she was quoted as saying several years ago, “gave me three husbands, but no children. If I had a son, he’d probably be a delinquent.”

Pictures and more information can be found at Early Aviators.

Williamina Paton Fleming

During her lifetime, Williamina Paton Fleming was America’s most famous female astronomer. In 1906 she became the first American to become a member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Williamina Paton Stevens was born May 15, 1857 in Dundee, Scotland. Her father operated a picture framing business and dabbled in early photography. He died when she was seven. She married James Orr Fleming in 1877.

The following year, the Flemings emigrated to Boston. In 1879 the marriage foundered and she went to work for Prof. E. C. Pickering of Harvard, a director of the college observatory. She soon showed a talent for astronomy and worked on star classification. She set up her own system with 10,351 stars listed in a special catalog. These included 222 stars which she had discovered herself. The eminent British astronomer, H. H. Turner, termed Mrs. Fleming’s discoveries “an achievement bordering on the marvelous.”

Among 28 novae stars known at the time of her death, Mrs. Fleming had discovered 10 by their spectra. She also discovered 94 of the 107 Rayet stars known at the time of her death.

Mrs. Fleming edited all of the publications that issued from the Harvard Observatory shortly after she started work there. In 1898 Harvard formally acknowledged the value of her services by giving her the official appointment as curator of astronomical photographs. It was the first such appointment given by Harvard University to a woman. Later she was placed in charge of the astrophotographic building.

She worked long hours at her job, her health suffered, and she became ill of pneumonia in the fall of 1910. She died in Boston the following spring on May 12, 1911. She was 54.

Interesting pictures can be found at the Harvard University Library. Or see the Encyclopedia Britannia - 300 women who changed the world.

Anna Mary Robertson

Perhaps the most remarkable American artist was Anna Mary Robertson Moses, “Grandma Moses”. She had little schooling, certainly none in art, and she didn’t really begin to paint in earnest until she was past 70.

She was born September 7, 1860 in Greenwich, N.Y. Her paternal great grandfather was Archibald Robertson who was born in Scotland in 1748 and emigrated to America in 1770. Her maternal great-grandfather, John Shonan, was also born in Scotland. Her father, Russell, was a farmer with artistic talent which he suppressed because of the necessity of farm chores. She was one of ten children when girls were not expected to spend much time in school.

She married Thomas S. Moses in 1887 and had 10 children; five survived. Too busy farming and rearing a family, she had little time for painting until well past retirement.

When she died December 13, 1961, President Kennedy eulogized her as “a beloved figure in American life.” She was 101 years of age.

More information can be found at the U.S. GenWeb Project.

Elizabeth Wiley Corbett, M.D.

An obituary in the New York Times says, “Elizabeth Wiley Corbett was widely known as the first (American) woman doctor.” She began practicing medicine when she was about 22 and continued until her death. Elizabeth Jane Wiley was born July 10, 1833, on a farm near Kent, Indiana. She was Scottish on both sides of her family. Her great grandfather emigrated to Virginia just before the American Revolution. Her mother was a Maxwell whose forebears included Weirs and Campbells from southern Scotland.

Higher education for women was not commonplace in America during the early 1800s. Elizabeth was expected to stay home sewing, weaving, cooking and scrubbing while her brothers attended school. She read their textbooks and soon was being tutored by her self-educated father, Preston P. Wiley. When her mother was stricken with typhoid, she determined at age 14 that she was going to be a physician to alleviate suffering.

Refused admission to the nearby all-male Hanover College because she was female, she entered Antioch College in Ohio. Here she had a chance to meet the famed educator Horace Mann, the college president. Finishing there, she enrolled in a small uncertified medical school in New York. She moved to San Francisco and started her medical practice. It was not until 1870 that she received her M.D. degree from the University of Michigan.

She married another physician, Dr. Samuel Corbett, and spent much of her later life fighting the entrenched prejudice against women doctors. Much of her time was devoted to the medical problems of women and children in gynecology, obstetrics and pediatrics. She died in Washington, D. C., on June 4, 1916.

A short autobiographical sketch is available at Google Books.

From the Editor

We have dedicated this issue to Scottish women and their accomplishments. Several weeks ago, I had lunch with Dr. and Mrs. Robert Snyder and he was telling me about his mother and her accomplishments. In 1911, she received a Masters in Arts and Mathematics from the University of Illinois. Her thesis was entitled “On the Complete Residue System of Certain Number Realms.” She not only “set the curve” for her class, but was the first woman to graduate from the program. Her thesis helped in the understanding and development of computers.

Those of us who write the newsletter would like to pay our respects to all the women of Scottish descent who have made such great contributions to our country and its development. If you have other stories about Scottish women please let us know.

On March 16, I had the privilege of speaking to the British Interest Group of Wisconsin and Illinois about Scots who influenced Chicago and the United States. It was also an opportunity to tell the story of Jessie Agnes McDonald.

Miss Mcdonald was a seamstress from Dundee, Scotland, who lived in Chicago. A suitcase of her letters and pictures were found in a Catholic rectory. They were brought to the Scottish Home by a wonderful man, a priest, who had become intrigued after reading her letters. Someday we will tell her story. Several people are now seeking her burial place. The last letter is postmarked 1952.

So many of you are writing that it is just impossible to answer every letter. They are much appreciated and we hope you will keep writing. This is our ninth publication and represents our third anniversary. The material seems endless, but we are always looking for different and unusual stories.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, IL 60546