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Paving the Way: Remembering The Nat's Founding Mother

Less than two decades after Kate Hall became the first female museum curator in England, Katherine (Kate) Brown Stephens became one of the first female curators in the United States.  

Born and raised in London, England, Kate Stephens’ career began at the British Museum of Natural History in the 1880s. She immigrated to the United States in 1890 and lived in San Diego, working as a dressmaker, before moving to Witch Creek in eastern San Diego County, where she worked as a school teacherOn August 1, 1898, she married ornithologist and mammalogist Frank Stephens. Sharing a love for natural history, Kate worked with Frank as a collector as they traveled throughout San Diego and Imperial Counties in the early 1900s.  

In 1902, Kate participated in a four-month-long Colorado Desert expedition for the U.S. Biological Survey. Her field notes of the expedition detail traveling and camping in the Mojave Desert regions while collecting specimens. In 1907, both Kate and Frank took part in the University of California Alexander Expedition to southeastern Alaska.

In July of 1910, the San Diego Society of Natural History hired Kate as the lead curator of all its scientific collectionsThis made Kate the first paid employee of the San Diego Natural History MuseumAs the Curator of Collections, Kate oversaw the care, management, and exhibition of the museum’s growing collections and archives. The Society’s first museum exhibitioninstalled by Kate and Frankopened its doors to the public in 1912 at the Hotel Cecil on Sixth Avenue in downtown San Diego.  

After the Society moved its collections into Balboa Park during the 1910s, Kate and Frank stayed in the apartment above the exhibition space and dedicated their full time to developing a public natural history museum for the city.  

Kate’s earliest field work focused on collecting butterflies, but her research interest soon shifted to mollusks (snails, clams, oysters) and their shells. Kate became a known authority on terrestrial and marine mollusks, including fossils, of the San Diego region. In 1920, she became the Curator of Mollusks and Marine Invertebrates for the MuseumIn this position, she identified fossil shells for the Society’s paleontological study, prepared numerous exhibits featuring shells, sponges, sea fans, and fossil shells, and taught natural history to local school childrenHer classes for young children were her greatest joy and some of her notable students include Dr. Carl L. Hubbs, one of the Directors of the Society, and Laurence M. Huey, Curator of Birds and Mammals. Kate continued to accompany her husband Frank on collecting trips, assisting with recording their travels and collecting specimens.

From 1927 to 1928, Kate became a large part of the paleontological study conducted by the Society with U.S. Grant IV and her husband Frank, working on fossil shells of San Diego County. By 1933, Kate was a nationally recognized naturalist and paleontologist. 

chaenopsid blenny, Neoclinus stephensae, was named in Kate’s honor in 1953. Five molluscan species were also named in her honor:   

  • Amphithalamus stephensae Bartsch, 1927  

  • Cerithiopsis stephensae Bartsch, 1909  

  • Gafrarium stephensae Jordan, 1936 (syn. Gouldia californica Dall, 1917)  

  • Odostomia stephensae Dall & Bartsch, 1909 (syn. O. tenuisculpta Carpenter, 1864)  

  • Rissoina stephensae Baker, Hanna & Strong, 1930  

When Kate retired from her Curator of Marine Invertebrate position, she was the longest working employee at the museum. Within her 30 years of service to the San Diego Natural History Museum, Kate served as the Society’s Curator of Collections, Assistant Director, Secretary, Librarian, and Curator of Mollusks and Invertebrates. Heconchology research continued into her mid-90s and her personal collection was donated to the museum in 1955.  

The Museum's Bulletin (February 1936) claimed that "In fact, it can be truly said that were it not for the devotion of Mrs. Stephens and her husband, Frank Stephens, there may be no Natural History Museum in San Diego today."  

Kate Stephens was a pioneering woman whose contributions to scientific research and public education helped pave the way for women in museums. As a female apprentice at The Nat and an aspiring curator, it is a great privilege to be part of Kate’s legacy, to learn from her specimens and field notes, and to tell her story. 

Posted by Noelle Zocco, Parker Photo Apprentice.

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