Obscure Unitarians: Bertha Louise Chapman Cady

This is a major revision of an earlier short biography of Bertha Cady Chapman.

A writer, biologist, and sexuality educator, Bertha Louise Chapman was born July 5, 1873, in Santa Barbara, Calif., the daughter of Truman (sometimes given as “Freeman”) Fletcher Chapman and Mary Elizabeth Furlong Chapman; Bertha’s older sister Elizabeth Corinne Chapman had been born in the same place in 1870. By August, 1873, the family was living in San Buenaventura (now known as Ventura), Calif., where Truman worked as a druggist.

After Bertha was born in 1873, Truman became involved in mining, and he moved the family to New Mexico to operate mines there. In 1880, Bertha, her parents, and both siblings were living in Las Vegas. Truman was the postmaster of Las Vegas, New Mexico, from Jan., 1878, to Sept., 1880. In 1880, he owned the St. Nicholas Hotel on the Plaza. Las Vegas had grown into a bustling town with the coming of the railroad in 1878, but the Plaza retained a distinctly Southwestern flavor:

“The Plaza is in the center of the town.…About the center of the Plaza is the relic of the old well, the windmill having been torn down, and the well long out of use. It was the scene of [a] horrible sight this Spring, as on the night of February 9th the vigilantes hung one cowboy to the windmill, and laid his two companions out beneath him, riddled with bullets, because of their murder of Joe Carson, a few weeks previous. The Plaza is the principal market for the produce of the farmers.… Almost daily one will see large droves of burros standing about, loaded with wools, hides, or pelts.…Little, narrow, crooked streets lead out from the Plaza, and on all side of the town are scattered those queer little adobes, which give the place its ancient and foreign appearance to strangers.” (H. T. Wilson, Historical Sketch of Las Vegas, New Mexico [Chicago: Hotel World Pub., 1880?], p. 18)

This is the town where Bertha lived when she was perhaps 5 to 8 years old.

In 1884, Truman was managing the Bullion Mine in the Black Range mining district of New Mexico, some 300 miles from Las Vegas, N.M.; this mine was then “producing large quantities of high grade ore.” It’s not clear whether the Chapman family as a whole lived near the mine. By 1888, Truman was back in California, now living in Oakland, presumably with his family.

Bertha entered Stanford Univ. in 1891, receiving her A.B. in English in 1895; her sister Elizabeth graduated from Stanford in that same year. Bertha had also begun studying biology, especially entomology. Beginning in 1896, she was a coauthor for some of the volumes of the “New Mallophaga” [bird lice] series published by Stanford Univ., for which series Stanford professor Vernon Kellogg (q.v.) was the lead author. Bertha attended the summer session of the Hopkins Seaside Laboratory in 1897. She joined the Cooper Ornithological Club in March, 1901. She received her A.M. in entomology from Stanford in 1902. She also did additional study in entomology at the Univ. of Calif. in Berkeley, probably after 1902.

Bertha taught zoology and botany at Santa Barbara High School, probably between 1895 and c. 1897. She was teaching zoology and botany at Paso Robles High School by 1899, but later that year she was working as Library Assistant at Stanford (perhaps so she could pursue additional studies at the university?).

In 1900, Bertha lived at 120 East 14th St., Oakland, Calif., with her parents and younger brother Charles; the family had a live-in servant, and Truman gave his occupation as “mining superintendent.” However, the 1900 Census also listed Truman as living as a boarder in Jicarilla, N.M., so presumably his wife and children lived in Oakland while he traveled to back and forth to New Mexico to operate mines. In 1903, he was listed as the owner of the Bullion Mine and the Last Chance Mine in New Mexico, although by this time the mines were producing less ore than previously.

From 1900 to 1907, Bertha lived in Oakland and worked in the Oakland high school where she was supervisor of nature study. In that position, she developed a series of leaflets for “Junior Naturalists,” and encouraged the use of gardens in schools as a center for nature study.

She reportedly considered attending Cornell Univ. for graduate study, but instead went to the Univ. of Chicago to study. By 1907, she was working under Otis Caldwell at the university, and working as Asst. Supervisor of Nature Study at the Univ. of Chicago, probably in the Univ. Elementary School; she remained in that job until 1909.

During the summer of 1908, she lived at the Abraham Lincoln Center, a Unitarian congregation and community center. Vernon Mosher Cady (q.v.) was also living there that summer. The two married on Dec. 15, 1908; the wedding ceremony was held at the Center, and the officiant was Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a well-known Unitarian minister of the time.

After their marriage, Bertha subordinated her career to Vernon’s career. Bertha’s graduate study was put on hold for a time, while the couple moved to where Vernon found jobs. He served as Unitarian minister in Alton, Ill., from 1908 to 1909, then as Unitarian minister in Kansas City, Mo., from 1909-1910. He then left the ministry and switched careers, working at Central Registration Bureau of Charities in New York City from 1912 to 1917, while also studying at Columbia.

Bertha and Vernon had two children, Carol Chapman Cady (b. Feb. 2, 1910, Missouri; q.v.) and Jean Mosher Cady (b. July 28, 1912, Calif.; q.v.). While her children were young, there is little record of her professional activities, and she probably devoted most of her time to raising her children; though she did do some work as lecturer and field secretary for the Social Hygiene Assoc. from 1914 to 1924, a part-time and possibly volunteer position. (There was some overlap between the social hygiene movement and the eugenics movement at this time, but no evidence was found that either Bertha or Vernon were active eugenicists.)

She and Vernon returned to California in 1917 when Bertha’s parents became ill. She managed to do some graduate study at the Univ. of Calif. in Berkeley while also caring for her parents and her children. In 1918, Bertha taught at biology at Calif. State Teachers College in Chico, filling in for Prof. Cyril Stebbins, who was doing war work.

The family moved to Palo Alto in 1921 so Vernon could study at Stanford. Bertha worked as a lecturer at Stanford 1921-1923, and also finally completed her Ph.D. in entomology; she was 50 years old. Her dissertation was titled “A study of the supposed toxic properties of insect infested cereal food products.”

While living in Palo Alto, Bertha taught the 4th and 5th grade Sunday school class at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in the 1921-22 school year; he daughter Carol, then eleven years old, was in her class. She and Vernon made financial contributions to the church in 1923.

The family then moved to New York, again following Vernon’s career, and by 1930 she and Vernon were living in Manhattan, N.Y. City, with Carol. Bertha began working as the chief naturalist for the Girl Scouts in 1924, producing curriculum and other materials. In June, 1925, The Girl Scout Leader newsletter (vol. 2, no. 6, p. 1) carried her article, “Nature for the Girl Scout Who Does Not Go to Camp,” in which Bertha encourages girls to be open and curious and investigate the natural world wherever they may be:

“It is not only the Girl Scout in a summer camp who has the chance to discover what a truly wonderful world we are living in. No matter how congested a city you may be in, nature is generous enough, universal enough to be there with her cheer.… In place of passing by the English sparrows on the street, it might be a lovely thing to watch them feeding, courting, and quarreling. They are noisy little gamins and yet one who knows how to see the interesting things that an English sparrow has to tell will be far more ready to learn of other birds’ ways.”

This captures a key element of Bertha’s teaching: Nature is all around us, and we can always learn by looking and observing.

In 1921, she had been appointed Special Investigator in the U.S. Department of Education for the Interdepartmental Hygiene Board, working in the five normal schools (or teacher’s colleges) of California. She continued with government social hygiene work through at least 1932. From 1924 to 1935, she was executive secretary of the coordinating council on nature activities at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. She continued working for the Girl Scouts as their head naturalist until her retirement in 1935.

Bertha’s career encompassed biology and education, and in addition to some scientific papers (see above), she published books for young people. Probably her best-known book today is The Way Life Begins: An Introduction to Sex Education (New York: American Social Hygiene Assoc., 1917), a pioneering sexuality education guide for young people, which she cowrote with her husband Vernon; this book linked nature study with what was then known as “sex hygiene education.” She wrote Tami: The Story of a Chipmunk, an environmental fable for children, which was published in 1927. She wrote regularly for the Girl Scouts, including nature guides, nature study materials, and articles for the magazine American Girl.

She lectured frequently throughout her career. By 1940, she was living in Florida with Vernon, and gave her occupation as “Lecturing / adult education.”

In 1956, she was invited to attend the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the American Nature Study Society’s Nature Study Review, and one person present remembered her “as a slender, radiant white-haired guest of honor sitting on the stage with…Roger Tory Peterson…” and other eminent naturalists. When photographs of the event were mailed to her, her daughter replied saying that a few days afterwards, she had died in her sleep.

Bertha died Jan. 26, 1956.

Notes: 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940 U.S. Census; Durward Howes, American Women, 1935-1940, A-L (Gale Research Co., 1981), p. 139; Great Register of Ventura County–Supplement, Calif. Great Registers (voting lists); Mining Record, vol. XVL, Dec. 20, 1884, p. 394; Great Register, Alameda County, Calif. Great Registers; Postmaster Finder, Postmasters by City, Las Vegas, New Mexico, U.S. Postal Service Web site webpmt.usps.gov/pmt003d.cfm?param_pofc_key=35187 accessed July 17, 2020; Donald G. Kohrs, “Hopkins Seaside Laboratory of Natural History,” web.stanford.edu/group/seaside/pdf/hsl5.pdf accessed July 17, 2020; Annual Register, Stanford Univ., 1900; The Condor, Cooper Ornithological Club, May, 1901, p. 87; Report of the Governor of New Mexico to the Secretary of the Interior, U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1903; Guide to Nature, Agassiz Assoc., 1909, p. 312; Alumni Directory, Stanford Univ., 1899, 1910, 1921, 1932; Unity, Chicago, Unity Publishing, Abraham Lincoln Center, Jan. 7, 1909, p. 293; Oakland Tribune, Dec. 9, 1908 (gives the name of the officiating clergy as “Lloyd Paul Jones”); Catalogue of Officers and Students for 1917-1918, University of California (Berkeley, 1918); “Educational News and Notes,” School and Society, July 16, 1921, p. 32; James McKeen Cattell, Leaders in Education: A Biographical Dictionary (R.R. Bowker, 1941), p. 150; Helen Ross Russell, “75 Years of the American Nature Study Society,” Nature Study (vol. 37, nos. 1 & 2) archived online at brandwein.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/75-Years-of-The-American-Nature-Study-Society-…-Helen-Ross-Russell.pdf accessed July 17, 2020.

Bertha Cady Chapman remains of interest today as a woman scientist and educator who had to balance her career in science with family life, and a more detailed biography would be welcome. For an outline of her professional career, including the connection between sexuality education and nature study, see Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Teaching Children Science: Hands-On Nature Study in North America, 1890-1930 (University of Chicago Press, 2014), pp. 141, 162-163. See also Tiffany K. Wayne, American Women of Science Since 1900, vol. 1 (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2011), p. 275.

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