In Memoriam: Michele La Clergue Aldrich

In Memoriam: Michele La Clergue AldrichMichele La Clergue Aldrich
6 October 1942 — 23 November 2016

Michele La Clergue Aldrich, historian of geology, died 23 November 2016, after a short illness. Michele was born in Seattle, Washington on 6 October 1942, the daughter of Marion and Jean La Clergue. She was educated at Tustin High School, received her BA in Geology in 1964 from the University of California at Berkeley, where she met her future husband, Mark, whom she married in 1965. She was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship and received her PhD in the history of science from the University of Texas at Austin in 1974. In 1989 she was certified by the American Society of Archivists.

At Texas, Michele matured as a scholar under the guidance of William H. Goetzmann, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and her advisor, mentor, and lifelong friend. Under his guidance, she blossomed.

First employed as a research assistant at the Smithsonian Institution and the United States Geological Survey in 1965–1966, she was then a Lecturer in the Smith College History Department from 1969–1970. She became Assistant Editor for the Joseph Henry Papers at the Smithsonian in 1974, and a consultant for the Aaron Burr Papers of the New York Historical Society. Michele also was a field worker for the Women’s History Sources Survey in 1976–1977. She then became Project Director of the Women in Science Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and later the Archivist and Director of Information Services at that institution, altogether working at AAAS from 1977–1995.

Readers of this Newsletter will know Michele primarily from her work as a scholar and as one who held several positions in HSS, not the least of which were Publicity Officer (1978-1983), member of the Women’s Committee (1979-1982), HSS representative to the General and Interdisciplinary Section of AAAS (1981-1984), member of the Committee on Diversity (1994-1997), and Book Review Editor of Isis (1996-2003). In what follows, we will take only brief note of some important aspects of her scholarly career, which we cover in more detail in a forthcoming eulogy in Earth Science History, because here we want to emphasize aspects of her worklife as well, the more so because they may be less well known to readers of this Newsletter.

At AAAS, as Michele’s supervisor and colleague Shirley Malcolm, head of the AAAS Office of Opportunities in Science, observed (2017, personal communication), “in an ‘all hands on deck mode’ Michele focused in and played a huge role in producing ‘Equity and Excellence: Compatible Goals,’ a critical piece of work that framed the efforts of the Office of Opportunities in Science for decades to come. Michele was also passionate and analytical and brought to all of us her sense of the importance of historical context. As archivist of AAAS, she understood the importance of preserving the record of the AAAS’s role within the science community. And of course she was passionately committed to the Pacific Division. Whereas some saw the divisions as appendages (and perhaps now anachronisms) Michele understood their historical roots as well as their present day relevance in bringing science to people and people to science.”

Michele’s involvement with the AAAS Pacific Division dated from 1979 to the time of her passing. In June 1979, she was appointed to serve as the AAAS liaison to the Division, which she did for the next two decades. In 1998, Alan Leviton, the Division’s Executive Director since 1975, stepped down, and for the next several years, another person served as the Division head until, in 2002, Roger Christianson assumed that responsibility. As Roger observed (2017, personal communication), “… Michele was always a very strong supporter of the Division. She was always to the point and had good things to add to our discussions, whether we wanted to hear them or not! I always appreciated her input, seasoned by her time at AAAS. She was an ever-present figure at annual meetings and continued to sit in on Executive Committee and Council meetings as time allowed, always willing to provide excellent advice when called upon. She was also keen on helping students and was always willing to give a hand in judging student presentations. Michele was also a stalwart friend, someone who could be counted on regardless of the task. She especially seemed to enjoy editing written works and provided much needed feedback to improve the writings of many a person.”

In any assessment of Michele’s scholarship it is worth noting that she did not hold a long-term academic position, which remunerates individuals for their ongoing scholarship across the years through salary adjustments and promotions. She was instead a scholar’s scholar who engaged in the activity because of her innate love for knowledge and dedication to helping others. Here we wish to stress two themes that were central to her work: the importance of biography in the history of science and the extent of Michele’s commitment to writing the history of women.

For Michele, the history of earth sciences involved the interplay of people and ideas and she disliked social history that was sometimes bloodless. Her PhD thesis on the New York Natural History Survey intertwines the sciences with the lives of its individual practitioners. Much of her later work—on Charles Thomas Jackson, William Barton Rogers, Winifred Goldring, James Blake, John Boardman Trask, Ora White Hitchcock, and others continued in this vein. The history of geology only came alive, she believed, through the thought and actions of these men and women, and in this context one need only look at one or two of her major publications to appreciate how deftly she managed to integrate people and programs: The New York Natural History Survey, 1836-1845, published by the Paleontological Research Institute, Ithaca, New York, in 2000, and Theodore Henry Hittell’s The California Academy of Sciences, 1853-1907 (coeditor/coauthor; 1997). A second theme reflected her commitment to bring women scientists out of the shadows and it too began early in her career. When Michele entered graduate school in 1964 academia was as male dominated as coal mining and at times no more welcoming of women. She encountered some faculty who believed women had no place in higher education. Perhaps adversity was the spur, but a booklet in her files entitled “Research Ideas—1964” contains “Women in Science” [her emphasis] and her PhD thesis highlighted the shabby treatment John Torrey of the New York Survey meted out to his illustrator Agnes Mitchell. She also stood up for other women in her work life. Shirley Malcom tells the following story:

when we sat in a senior management meeting together in the… [1980s] I had made a suggestion about which there was little comment…. Five minutes later one of the men in the meeting made the same suggestion which everyone praised…. At that point Michele spoke up and said “Yes it’s a good idea. It was even a good idea five minutes ago when Shirley said it!” I have never forgotten that moment when she stepped into the conversation to make another woman’s ideas visible. Her courage gave me courage.

Michele’s commitment to telling women scientists’ stories was lifelong. Her last talk delivered to the Geological Society of America a month before her death was an effort to make visible the ideas of Mount Holyoke geologist Mignon Talbot. But we would be negligent if we did not mention at least two or three of her publications relating to advancing the stature and knowledge of women in science, among them being Report on the Participation of Women in Scientific Research (coauthor; 1978), Women in Paleontology in the United States, 1840-1960 (1982), and Women of Science: Righting the Record (author; 1990).

As all who knew Michele can attest, there was a playful quality to her intellect. The final version of her master’s thesis delivered to William Goetzmann in 1964 was entitled “Fourth Goddamn Draft.” Goetzmann shared the same playfulness, replying: “Dear Mrs. Aldrich: Here [in return] is the ‘Fourth Goddamn Draft’ of your master’s paper; turn it in for one master’s certificate or a box of soap flakes.” Michele was also a sharp and perceptive critic—as both current authors can attest—and not least of her own work. A graduate paper she wrote in the philosophy of history had a note on the front “If you don’t like this paper that makes two of us.”

Although Michele never held a tenure-track teaching position, many readers will recall how much they learned from her. And whereas she believed that historians ought to master the science, she emphasized that scientists needed to appreciate and employ historians’ research skills as well. These concerns led her, in conjunction with Mott Greene and Cliff Nelson to create a short course on “Writing History of Geology” for the GSA meetings in 1987. The course essentially boiled a semester of historical methods into a day’s work and must have seemed like boot camp to the recipients. It included a review of general reference works, how to do biographical and manuscript searches and examples of how to read historical documents with care, as well as material on illustrations and portraits, all complete with thick handouts. The course reflected not only her commitment to teaching others but the high standards she set for her own scholarship. Indeed, in the acknowledgments section of their book Looking Far North: The Harriman Expedition to Alaska, 1899 (Viking Press, New York, 1982), William Goetzmann and his coauthor Kay Sloan, observed (10), “Michele Aldrich . . . ranks as one of this or any other generation’s outstanding researchers, and over the years she has set a new standard for scholarly friendship.”

Michele was a member of the Geological Society of America, the History of Science Society, the History of Earth Sciences Society, and the Forum for the History of Geology in America (founding member). She held numerous offices in several of these societies including the Chair of the Geological Society of America’s History of Geology Division (1979–1980), for which she also served as Secretary-Treasurer of the Division (1984–1992) and editor of its Newsletter (1984–1992, and on occasion thereafter filling in for others). She twice received honorary awards from that organization, including the prestigious Mary C. Rabbitt Award for Scholarly Achievements in the History of Geology and the Division’s Gerald & Sue Friedman Award for distinguished service. She was a Senior Fellow of the Geological Society of America, a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She was a visiting Fellow at Cornell University, Book Review Editor for the History of Science Society journal Isis, from 1996–2003, and from 1998–2003, Archivist of Otis Elevator Company, and a Research Associate and a Consulting Editor for Scientific Publications at the California Academy of Sciences from 1995–2016. She was one of the founders of the Northampton Valley Women’s Center, and also was a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists, the New England Archivists, the Organization of American Historians, as well as INHIGEO (the International Commission on the History of the Geological Sciences).

Michele was a generous donor to charities, and she was devoted to her family and friends, including two cats. She loved to travel, read mystery stories, and was an avid gardener who especially enjoyed roses and loud, red zinnias. She leaves her husband of 51 years, Mark Aldrich, her sister Marijean Piorkowski, and brothers, Richard and Ronald La Clergue, along with two nieces and one nephew, and many friends and colleagues. She was a bright star to all who passed within her orbit.

By Mark Aldrich, Marilyn Carlson Nelson Professor of Economics Emeritus, Smith College, Northampton, MA 01060 ( and Alan E. Leviton, Curator Emeritus & Editor, Scientific Publications, Institute of Biodiversity Science and Sustainability, California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118 (