Graceanna Lewis Historical Site
Graceanna Lewis was born on August 3, 1821, in Chester County, Pennsylvania. She was a well-educated scientist focusing on botany and zoology. She was a self-taught naturalist and wrote many books; however, only one was published on the history of birds. Lewis saw science as a way to search for God while fellow scientists did not approve of this. As well as being a natural scientist, she was a scientific illustrator and abolitionist. Being born into a Quaker family allowed their home to be a safe haven for slaves and it became part of the "Underground Railroad". She was also involved in women's suffrage, antislavery movements, and temperance. Her historical marker is located in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
Backstory and Context
Graceanna Lewis was born in 1821 in West Vincent, Pennsylvania. She lived on a farm and was the second of four daughters to her farmer parents, John Lewis and Esther Fussell Lewis. She was also the second of five children. She belonged to a Quaker family that was also abolitionists. At the age of three, her father John died; this led her mother to take care of all the children, run the household, and provide for everyone on her own. In the Quaker religion, daughters are allowed to be educated as well. Her mother was a teacher and taught the children at home then sent the girls to the Kimberton Boarding School for Girls. Kimberton was a Quaker school only two miles away from her home. At school Graceanna was a student of Abigail Kimber, who was a botanist and reformer, and had a big impact on Graceanna. While in school she learned about astronomy, botany, chemistry, and zoology. These studies were the beginning of her interest in natural science.
Esther Lewis was greatly involved in social activism and a big role model to her children. While growing up the farm became a part of the Underground Railroad. This provided shelter for slaves looking for freedom in the Northern states. Even after her mother’s death, Graceanna still provided her home as a safe haven for runaway slaves. It was believed that she housed as many as eleven slaves at once in her home.
After schooling, Graceanna started her career as a botany and chemistry teacher. She worked at a boarding school in York, Pennsylvania. Shortly after starting to teach she moved to York and lived with her uncle Bartholmew Fussell. Her uncle had his own boarding school for girls and allowed Graceanna to teach there but unfortunately it closed after being open for only two years. She then returned home where she gave all her time to her family and social reforms.
Once the Civil War ended Graceanna returned to her passion of the sciences. She continued her studies on botany and started ornithology. Ornithology is the study of birds. During this time, she moved to Philadelphia and worked with other Quakers studying natural sciences. While in Philadelphia she met John Cassin, who was wildly known in America for ornithology and studied under him for several years. Cassin even named the White-Edged Oriole after her (Icterus Graceannae).
Women were still very limited in what work they could do professionally when she was in her middle adulthood. Sciences were especially limited for women since it was seen as more of a man’s profession. She began to write many academic journals and even books on her studies. However, only one of her books were ever published, which was The Natural History of Birds. Once Cassin died, she lost her entry into the Academy of Natural Sciences and could not fill the teaching position there either. She continued to further her knowledge and began giving lectures on her findings and teachings of naturalism. As time went on her illustrations of natural science started to take off. She received a commission to paint a set of 50 watercolor illustrations of leaves from the Pennsylvania Forestry Commission. These would later be displayed at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.
Later in her life she moved to Media, Pennsylvania and lived with her niece and nephew. This house is viewed as a historic landmark and has a plaque outside explaining who lived there. While Graceanna lived there a census was done and her occupation was listed as a naturalist. Graceanna was never married and had one adopted daughter Ellen. Ellen grew up and married a wealthy man which allowed her to send money home to her mother and also providing a summer home along the shore.
Graceanna died at the age of 90 due to a stroke. She died February 25, 1912 and was buried in Media, Pennsylvania. Graceanna is remembered as one of the early female scientists and an abolitionist. She is known as the only women in Pennsylvania at the time to do her own work in natural science.
Bowman, Craig. After The Civil War, This Woman Tried To Unite Science and Theology, War History Online. May 27th 2017. Accessed December 4th 2020. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/civil-war-woman-tried-unite-science-theology.html
Graceanna Lewis, History of American Women. Accessed December 4th 2020. https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2014/12/graceanna-lewis.html.
Graceanna Lewis, The Historical Marker Database. Accessed December 4th 2020. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=84957.
Graceanna Lewis, Sierra College Natural History Museum. Accessed December 4th 2020. https://www.sierracollege.edu/ejournals/jscnhm/v6n1/lewis.html.