The Hidden Figures in the History of the Sanctuary System

50th Anniversary Sanctuary Signature Articles

By Elizabeth Moore | Feburary 2022

Photo: Yellowstone National Park Ranger Marguerite "Peg" Lindsley and Rex the horse c. 1928-1931. Lindsley was the first permanent female park ranger in the National Park Service and helped pave the way for women who work in conservation fields today, including about half the staff of the sanctuary system. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

A woman stands with a horse

Hidden Figures

The conservation, science, and protected area sectors, like other facets of our society, have begun to face their history of racism. For example, Native Americans were removed from their ancestral lands to make way for iconic national parks such as Yellowstone. Sierra Club founder John Muir made derogatory observations of Native Americans and African Americans in his writings. Naturalist John J. Audubon owned enslaved human beings. From Reconstruction to the 1960s civil rights movement, parks, beaches, and recreational facilities were segregated; those for minorities, if they existed at all, were typically of inferior quality. Even today, low income and minority-dominated communities have fewer and harder-to-access parks than more wealthy or white-dominated towns and cities. Conservation agencies and organizations have an ongoing challenge of building more diverse and inclusive leadership, staff, and membership.

Part of the way we are addressing that challenge is discovering and celebrating all the people who have helped protect the places that are now underwater parks, and who have helped build the culture and expertise of our conservation, science, and protected area sectors. We are taking the opportunity of our 50th anniversary to celebrate some of the historic hidden figures long unknown or unacknowledged in our own history.

Harriet Hemenway
Portrait of Harriet Hemenway. Image courtesy of MassAudubon

Protecting Our Wildlife and Wild Places

The National Audubon Society, today's preeminent bird protection organization named for naturalist John James Audubon, has roots that lie in the late 1890s efforts of two Boston women, cousins Harriet Lawrence Hemenway (1858-1960) and Minna B. Hall (1859-1951). Outraged by the horrors of the feather trade—in which thousands of birds such as egrets, herons, and songbirds were cruelly killed for their feathers to adorn ladies' hats—they recruited the women of Boston to stop wearing such hats to help bring a halt to the practice. They paved the way for modern legislation that protects seabirds and migratory birds, and helped found the National Audubon Society, which continues their work today.

Captain Charles Young
Portrait of Captain Charles Young in 1903. Image: National Park Service

A few decades later, another woman not interested in conforming to the expected gender roles of her time, Dr. Julia Barlow Platt (1857-1935) founded what was one of the first modern underwater parks in the nation in 1932. Platt was born in San Francisco but went to college on the East Coast. After completing graduate work at Harvard, unable to find an American university to grant her a Ph.D., she attended the University of Freiburg in Germany and reached her goal in 1898. Her graduate research was remarkable, including developing a number of foundational zoological concepts and discoveries. Returning to the U.S. an accomplished and credentialed scientist still did not open professional doors for Platt, so she opened her own. Platt retired from science and instead used her knowledge and gumption in a new career of political and conservation activism. As mayor of Pacific Grove, California, she pioneered public beach access and established a small marine refuge offshore of the town that was one of the forerunners of underwater parks in the country. Today, Lovers Point – Julia Platt State Marine Reserve, one of California's marine reserves protecting all marine life within its boundary, honors her legacy.

The tradition of national parks in the U.S. began with the 1872 designation of Yellowstone National Park and other early parks such as Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, and Glacier. Army troops were often sent to manage and patrol these early parks. In 1903, as the commander of a company of African American troops, Charles Young became the de facto superintendent of Sequoia National Park, the first African American to hold such a position. Under his guidance for the summer he served as superintendent, the first roads and trails to allow visitors into the park were constructed and/or improved; practices such as poaching and sheep grazing were curbed; and negotiations were started with neighboring landowners to sell their property to the park. A distinguished military and diplomatic career followed, recognized in 2013 with the creation of the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Young's home in Wilberforce, Ohio. Today, superintendents of protected areas such as national parks and national marine sanctuaries can take inspiration from Young's dedication and perseverance in protecting the natural heritage and history of the country.

George Meléndez Wright
George Meléndez Wright taking photos in Yosemite National Park. Image: National Park Service

The collection of national parks eventually evolved into the National Park Service in 1916, which itself helped pave the way for the establishment of the National Marine Sanctuary Program in 1972 (now known as NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries). Today's modern National Park Service culture and values were shaped by its early leaders, and have had an enduring influence on all the parks and protected areas of the U.S. Among those early leaders was Hispanic American George Meléndez Wright (1904-1936), the son of an American father and Salvadoran mother, who was appointed as the first chief of the Wildlife Division. Wright was responsible for promoting an ecosystem-view of wildlife in and around parks, an ethic that has been fundamental to national parks and other kinds of protected areas since. Though he died in a car accident in 1936, his legacy continues today.

The legacy of Jane Hurt Yarn (1924-1995) continues long after her death too. Of the few national marine sanctuaries that include the names of people—Gray's Reef, Stellwagen Bank, and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries—all come from men who explored and studied those areas. But Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary owes its existence to a woman. As a member of President Carter's Council on Environmental Quality, Yarn shepherded the designation of the sanctuary in the waning days of the Carter administration, urging the president to approve it before he left office in 1981, of which he said, in 2008: "[W]hen she got her mind set on something that should be good for Georgia she was what some people would call overly persistent…" It was the culmination of a little-known but accomplished conservation career in Yarn's native Georgia and for the nation, that included also helping create Cumberland Island National Seashore and Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge. The sanctuary's first research vessel was named in her honor, as is the interpretive center of Tallulah Gorge State Park in Georgia. In 1995, then-Governor Zell Miller said: "No other single individual has done as much for conservation in Georgia as Jane Yarn."

A group of people hiking with large backpacks
Polly Dyer on a hike with others along Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Image: Bob and Ira Spring

On the opposite coast of the nation, another woman's legacy also continues to shine on behalf of the nation and the sanctuary system. Polly Dyer (1920-2016) devoted her life to the conservation of the wild lands and waters of the Pacific Northwest, as a citizen activist on numerous county and state committees and as a leading proponent of both the National and Washington State Wilderness Acts. Dyer also founded and/or led a number of activist organizations. She was among the founders of the North Cascades Conservation Council, which led the effort to designate North Cascades National Park, and of the Alliance for Puget Sound Shorelines, advocating for increased public access to the waters of the sound. Dyer was also among the founders of the Olympic Coast Alliance in 2003, established to support and protect Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. In 2010, Washington Representative Jay Inslee saluted her in Congress, stating: "Polly Dyer has mentored, inspired and nurtured several generations of wilderness leaders in Washington State. On and off the trail, in and out of the halls of Congress, Polly Dyer is the exemplar of a wilderness leader. Thank you, Polly Dyer, for everything that you have done."

Exploring Our Wildernesses

National Geographic clipping of Matthew Henson
Portrait of Matthew Henson in the Arctic in 1905. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library

Humans have been a species on the move since we evolved, moving out of Africa and over the millennia populating the continents and spreading out among the islands of our global ocean. Early bands of humans were led by guides and navigators, following the first intrepid explorers to venture into lands and waters no person had ever seen before. A number of explorers associated with places that are now national marine sanctuaries inherited the mantle of these forebears who ventured bravely into the unknown.

Matthew Henson (1866-1955) was born to a Black sharecropping family in 1866 in the small town of Nanjemoy, Maryland, now a gateway community to Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary. His family left Nanjemoy the following year to move to Georgetown (now part of Washington, DC) to escape racial violence. But he didn't stay in Georgetown for long, venturing to sea and learning seamanship aboard the Katie Hines in his teen years. Hired first as an aide by Robert Peary for his work in Nicaragua, Henson accompanied Peary on multiple expeditions to seek the North Pole, developing survival skills and learning Inuit languages. Though Peary was honored immediately and extensively for his achievements in exploring the Arctic, Henson as a Black man was not though his accomplishments were similar. Several decades later, Henson was belatedly honored for his achievements, including honorary membership in the Explorers Club and a Congressional Medal.

As Henson ventured into the cold of the Arctic, Lancelot Jones (1898-1997) ventured into warmer climes down south. In the early days of the twentieth century, the southernmost tip of Florida where the archipelago of the Keys arcs out into the ocean was considered a wilderness area. Jones, the son of early land owners on Porgy Key, among the earliest Blacks to buy property and prosper in the region, continued his family traditions and made his living from the land and waters. He became a well-known and trusted fishing guide to take fishermen among the bays and islands of Biscayne Bay, including three men who were or would be presidents: Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. Jones and his brother remained among the largest landowners in the area as rapid commercial development began after World War II. The preservation of Porgy Key was so important to Jones and his family that they sold their property to the National Park Service in 1970 instead of to developers to ensure its preservation as part of Biscayne National Park. The Jones homesite was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

aerial view of jones lagoon

An aerial shot of Jones Lagoon in Biscayne National Park. Image: National Park Service

Studying Our Waters

a map of the world
PA painting of the Heezen-Tharp world ocean floor map that resulted from the work of Marie Tharp and her colleagues. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Frances L PArker
Portrait of Frances L. Parker in 1962. Image courtesy of University of California at San Diego.

When Marie Tharp (1920-2006) began her career as a geologist studying the seabed after World War II, she wasn't allowed aboard the research vessels doing at-sea studies; no women were. But she would soon change the decades-old assumption that the ocean bottom was largely a featureless plain of mud. A different picture emerged when Tharp gave form to the flood of information from research expeditions, showing a seabed that was as diverse in habitats as the land. She studied, interpreted, and envisioned the data into a series of large-scale, hand-drawn maps that revolutionized how we think about, manage, and protect the ocean, including in national marine sanctuaries and national marine monuments. In 1999, when Tharp received the Mary Sears Pioneer in Oceanography Award from Woods Hold Oceanographic Institute, she wrote: "I had a blank canvas to fill with extraordinary possibilities, a fascinating jigsaw puzzle to piece together: mapping the world's vast hidden seafloor. It was a once-in-a-lifetime—a once-in-the-history-of-the-world—opportunity for anyone, but especially for a woman in the 1940s."

Among the banks newly protected by the 2021 expansion of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, and mostly named for the scientists who discovered and studied them, only one—Parker Bank, which lies between 190 and 387 feet deep and features communities of black corals, octocorals, sponges, and other invertebrates—is named for a woman. Frances L. Parker (1906-2002), educated at Vassar and MIT, was a micropaleontologist specializing in foraminifera, tiny calcium-shelled animals living throughout the ocean. She worked at some of the leading ocean research institutions in the country, including Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and authored or co-authored over 30 research papers. The two-part "Ecology of Foraminifera, Northwest Gulf of Mexico," co-authored with frequent research colleague Fred B. Phleger, is considered a classic. Parker's discoveries and contributions to taxonomy, paleobiology, sedimentology, and stratigraphy won her many honors, including the naming of Parker Bank in 1976.

Sharing Our Wonders

Anna Botsford Comstock
Portrait of Anna Botsford Comstock in about 1900. Image courtesy of Cornell University Library

Today sanctuary system educators work hard to instill a love of the ocean in children and adults alike, and with it, a commitment to its protection and conservation. But what is an accepted teaching approach today—educating using nature—wasn't common practice in modern classrooms until the work of Alice Botsford Comstock (1854-1930). When her book "Handbook of Nature-Study" first appeared in 1911, her husband John Henry Comstock believed it would lose a significant amount of money when the book was published by the family's small printing company. But it quickly became the choice of school teachers across the country who called it their "Nature Bible."1 The book, updated through the years and now published by Cornell University Press, remains in use today. Produced after Comstock and several male colleagues learned that nature study was largely absent from American schools, the book provided information, field trip suggestions, and lesson plans about nearly everything in nature. Comstock, a teacher, scholar, and naturalist in addition to being a writer, served on the faculty of Cornell University for many years before finally being awarded a professorship in 1919. Her legacy shines on in all the lesson plans and hands-on activities that our educators use today to engage learners of every age in protecting our ocean.

A Sure Inheritance

a group of kids look at a clipboard
These Ocean Guardian School students participate in a project for Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. They might one day take our place as caretakers of the sanctuary system for future generations. Image: Nick Zachar/NOAA

We cannot change the mistakes and injustices of our past. But we can work to rectify the mistakes and ensure we don't repeat the injustices in the future. As there is one ocean on this planet, we are all of one race: human. And as members of a common humanity we must all work together to address the issues facing our ocean and our planet. Alice Botsford Comstock wrote: "These paths whether they lead among the lowliest plants, or whether to the stars, finally converge and bring the wanderer to the serene peace and hopeful faith that is the sure inheritance of all those who realize fully that they are working units of this wonderful universe."2 Let's make our way forward as working units of this wonderful universe, with joy and justice toward all.


1. Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists by Marcia Bonta, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas, 1991.

2. The Handbook of Nature-Study by Alice Botsford Comstock, Thirteenth Printing, Comstock Publishing Company, Ithaca, New York, 1922.