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Ruth Schmidt entered a career as a geologist when few women were accepted into the field. She was a pioneer; how many women held an M.A. in geology in 1939 or earned a Ph.D. in geology in 1948? And, as an educator, she paved the way for future women in the field.
Schmidt grew up in a family that placed a high value on education. All four of her siblings, three of whom were sisters, earned college degrees in the 1920s. Schmidt continued in the family tradition, earning a B.A. from New York University at the age of 20, a M.A. in 1939 (at the height of the depression) and a Ph.D. in 1948, both from Columbia University, in geology. Her interest in pursuing a career in science perhaps began after NYU when she was certified and worked as an X-ray technician in a hospital and private doctor’s office. Over the years she applied her interest in and knowledge of radiography to geology, researching how that technique could be applied particularly in the field of paleontology. This work led to the publication of a number of scientific articles concerning radiographic methods and micropaleontology.
Beginning her geology career in the early years of WWII provided her with some unique opportunities which served her in many ways. As a graduate student at Columbia University in the early 1940s, she was recruited to teach two all male classes in science and military mapmaking due to the shortage of male graduate students. The professor, impressed by her knowledge of the subject matter, teaching abilities and administrative talents, provided an excellent reference. In 1943 when employed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Washington, D.C., she was one of the few women to join the agency as a geologist. She was immediately assigned to the recently formed top secret Military Geology Unit where, along with her mostly male colleagues, she applied her professional knowledge to specific war-time tasks. The job was to provide mapping and both general and specific details of terrain to the Army Corps of Engineers to enable that agency to identify suitable areas for construction of infrastructure such as airfields, ports, and landing areas overseas. After the war work was completed, Schmidt continued her professional interest in the possible application of radiography to geology by directing and planning such research at USGS.
During her years in Washington, D.C. at USGS (1943-56), Schmidt was concerned about the prevailing racial segregation that existed. In 1945 she joined The Washington Cooperative Bookshop which, in addition to selling books and records at a discount, offered a place where blacks and whites could meet for interracial, cultural gatherings, forums and lectures on art, world affairs, science and other topics. Then in 1950 and again in 1954, in the midst of the socalled “Red Scare,” her loyalty to the United States was questioned by her federal employer because of involvement in the Cooperative Bookshop which the attorney general had declared to be a “subversive” organization. A transcript of the hearing in 1950 shows that Schmidt was not intimidated by the process or the members of the Loyalty Board and, characteristically, was direct and forthright in her responses to their questions. Cleared within months, she again faced charges in 1954 when the Secretary of the Department of Interior advised her that her continued associations and activities in connection with the Cooperative Bookshop “tended to show” that she was “not reliable.” Once again she provided written answers and affidavits from fellow employees and friends demonstrating her loyalty to the country, faced questions in another hearing and again was cleared within several months. It is perhaps not mere speculation to assume that her transfer to Alaska in 1956 to establish an Anchorage field office as the district geologist (1956-63) was greeted as a positive move by both the agency and Schmidt.
In addition to her work at USGS in Anchorage, Schmidt, in 1959, initiated and taught, as the sole teacher, the first college-level geology courses at Anchorage Community College, and then continued her career as an educator at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), retiring as chair of the Geology Department in 1984. Friends believe she discovered her true passion in the teaching of the science of geology to young students. Over her long teaching career, she was particularly supportive of young women entering the sciences, acting as a mentor and helping launch many women (and men) into professional careers, an important contribution for a resource-rich state. During her 25-year teaching career, she laid the foundation for today’s UAA geological science curriculum and designed the first geology laboratory at UAA, which was in operation until 2010. She was a well respected, albeit demanding, teacher and over the years it was not uncommon for former students to approach her at public events to voice their appreciation. Schmidt was elected a Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science; founder, first president and honorary life member, Alaska Geological Society; American Institute of Professional Geologists, admitted in 1964, and emeritus status in 1986.
Her support of higher education extended beyond teaching. In 1993 Schmidt established the Edward and Anna Range Schmidt Charitable Trust which provides financial assistance to students, teachers and educational groups in the sciences, particularly earth and environmental sciences, with preference given to Alaska Natives and other minorities. Over the years she and her siblings established scholarships in honor of her siblings at the colleges from which they graduated. Most recently Schmidt, in her will, provided an endowment to the University of Alaska Foundation for scholarships for geology students at UAA.
As a professional geologist, Schmidt was involved in a number of Alaska’s major historic events. On Good Friday, March 27, 1964, the epic earthquake found Schmidt, three students and a U.S. Forest Service employee in the middle of Portage Lake boring holes in the ice to measure water depth. Avalanches and rock slides crashed down around the edges, the ice itself quietly moved back and forth (later measured as a five foot swing) and the ice ringing the shore broke up, creating six-foot pressure ridges and leaving open water between the ice and the shore. With Schmidt in charge, the group with its snowmachine eventually found a solid patch to get them off the ice and onto the railroad tracks. Unable to return via the unstable train tunnel they found a small railroad cabin occupied by a young couple and their baby and spent the night. The next day a helicopter took them back to the lodge where they were staying in Portage and by Sunday, another helicopter flew them back to Anchorage. On Monday, three days after Friday’s historic earthquake, Schmidt attended an emergency meeting of all the available earth scientists in Anchorage from both the private and public spheres. She was selected to coordinate the work of the 40 or so scientists who volunteered their expertise to assess and map the areas of damage and of potential damage in Anchorage. On the very next day, base maps were procured and the scientists took to the field to start the assessments before the weather or humans had the time or opportunity to change the terrain. Within days, Schmidt was able to release a preliminary report followed by a final report on May 8th which, though hastily done, was the basis for subsequent studies detailing the geological factors which would influence future building sites. Despite criticism from real estate developers and downtown business interests, Schmidt insisted the public and local officials be fully briefed on the hazards identified before any rebuilding was initiated.
Schmidt also played a role in the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline when in 1974 – 1975; she was appointed an environmental consultant to the Office of the Governor. Her job was to make inspections all along the pipeline route to report on environmental concerns, the state of restoration, cleanliness of camps, etc. Schmidt continued working as a consulting geologist on any number of private and public projects throughout Alaska well into her eighth decade. During her extensive travels around Alaska and the world, she built an impressive slide library of geologic features.
Throughout her career, she was active in a number of professional organizations starting in 1948 with membership in the Geological Society of America. She was admitted to the American Institute of Professional Geologists in 1964 and was granted emeritus status in 1986. Schmidt received a number of honors as a geologist: named a Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science; to the Board of Governors, Arctic Institute of North America; and Delegate, International Geologic Congress in Prague, 1968. Along with seven men, she founded the Alaska Geological Society in 1958, served as its first president, was on the board and was a life member. In 2008 she received a special AGS award for her long years of service and membership. She became a member of the American Association of Petroleum Engineers in 1957 and is to be the first woman honored on the occasion of the association’s upcoming centennial. She served many years on the board and the advisory council for the Alaska Museum of Natural History (now the Alaska Museum of Science and Nature) and was bestowed an honorary lifetime membership. Schmidt led creation of the Brooks Range Library and served as president and trustee during 1979 – 1991. She was a longtime member, officer and supporter of Anchorage Audubon and an early board member of the Alaska Center for the Environment. For many years, Schmidt was listed in “Who’s Who in America” and in “Who’s Who in Science and Engineering.”
Following her final retirement as a consulting geologist in about 2000, Schmidt devoted a substantial portion of her financial resources to philanthropy, supporting causes such as education, the environment, the arts and social justice. She took her role as a philanthropist seriously and in her later years, recognizing that dementia was approaching, Schmidt set up a plan whereby the charities she supported would continue to receive funding during her lifetime even though she no longer could manage her affairs. This generosity was further enhanced by more than 20 substantial bequests found in her will; which not only provided for groups and charities she had traditionally supported, but also included charitable organizations which had no previous support or contact from her.
Schmidt’s forthright, direct personality stood her in good stead throughout her life, particularly in her early career as a young woman in a singularly masculine profession. A long-time friend quipped that “Ruth’s personality was bigger than she was.” It is true she was short in stature, but that did not define her; she was confident, strong, quick, generous, funny, a collector of cartoons and jokes and she commanded respect. Even in her later years and with early stage dementia when she was unable to remember someone’s name or recall a word, she did not attempt to cover up the lapse or pretend. In her direct way of speaking she would forthrightly state that her shortterm memory was gone. This simple, direct declaration immediately opened up the conversation giving the person to whom she was speaking the opportunity to comment or ask a question. It was an immediate gift from a teacher who continued to educate those around her.
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/KnFD_kUl8WE
Photo courtesy of the Collection of Sally Gibert
- Ruth Schmidt papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage
- “Ruth Schmidt’s Obituary on Alaska Dispatch News”, Alaska Dispatch News, 07 Apr. 2014
- “Project 49: Ruth A.M. Schmidt, geologist, McCarthyism survivor”, Nov. 5, 2014, Jamie Gonzales, UAA Office of University Advancement: http://greenandgold.uaa.alaska.edu/blog/28969/project-49-ruth-m-schmidt-geologistmccarthyism-survivor/livepage.apple.com
- Saucier, Heather. “An Extraordinary, Unknown Career”. livepage.apple.com http://www.geoexpro.com/magazine/vol-11-no-6