Women Making History:

Scientists, Artists, and Writers
of the 1925 Arcturus Expedition

by Elizabeth Moore

March 2023

Hudson Canyon, a magnificent submarine feature off the coast of New York, is in the early stages of a designation process to consider establishment as a national marine sanctuary. Hudson Canyon's grand scale; diversity of habitats like outcrops, slopes, and soft and hard sediments; and areas of upwelling make it an ecological hotspot for an abundance and diversity of marine wildlife. This important ecosystem was first documented during a six-month-long research expedition on the vessel Arcturus in 1925, with the help of a crew that included six female explorers.

A brightly-colored octocoral stands out from the sandy seabed
An expedition of NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration took this photo of a deepwater octocoral in the proposed Hudson Canyon National Marine Sanctuary. Image: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration.

Research Vessel Arcturus

By the time Arcturus left New York City in February 1925, more than 50 years of modern ocean exploration had already occurred. Government ships from the Coast Survey and the U.S. Fisheries Bureau (now the National Marine Fisheries Service) joined vessels from universities and private organizations in exploring American waters and those stretching around the world. But few expeditions probably had as much popular interest as Arcturus which was supported by the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society); was destined for exotic locales like Bermuda and the Galapagos; and planned to deliver regular dispatches to the news so readers could follow along.

people sitting in two rows at desks with microscopes and other scientific equipment
The scientific and professional staff at work aboard Arcturus. Image from "The Arcturus Adventure" by William Beebe and Ruth Rose, 1926.

But there was another curiosity that caught the popular imagination: six professional women would be on board. When questioned about it by The Americus Times-Recorder that claimed celebrated male explorers were rolling in their graves at the thought of women aboard the research vessel, William Beebe, the expedition's leader, said: "If it were feasible I would have my entire scientific party made up of [women], just as readily as not. Fine minds are as necessary in modern research exploration as fine courage. It is easier to find fine women than fine men."

At a time when women aboard vessels were considered bad luck, a distraction, or both, and two generations before female scientists on research expeditions were no longer considered unusual, six highly accomplished women formed a third of Arcturus's professional and scientific staff: Isabel Cooper (science artist), Mary Poland-Fish (fisheries scientist), Ruth Rose (historian and writer), Lillian Segal (chemist), Helen Tee-Van (science artist), and Elizabeth S. Trotter (fisheries scientist).

A drawing shows three colorful stylized fish
Isabel Cooper designed the inside cover images for the book "The Arcturus Adventure." Image from "The Arcturus Adventure" by William Beebe and Ruth Rose, 1926.

The Women of Arcturus

Isabel Cooper (1892–1984) was an artist for the New York Zoological Society and provided illustrations for many expeditions and projects, including for William Beebe's 1924 book "Galapagos: World's End." She loved depicting wildlife and plants, writing in a 1924 article about how she arrived at her career: "The perfect job is mine. The vague, magnificent idea had given me no hint of the fantastic delight in store for me." She was also profiled in the February 1926 issue of The American Magazine: "Isabel Cooper is the only one of her kind in the world. Her profession is peculiarly her own, because she created it: that of painting the natural colors and expressions of the lesser creatures of the jungles."

Dr. Mary Poland-Fish (1900–1989) was an ichthyologist married to a fellow fisheries scientist, the fortunately-named Charles J. Fish. Both worked at the time for the Fisheries Bureau and went on to have accomplished careers, including helping found the Narragansett Marine Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island in 1948. Poland-Fish was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1966 by the U.S. Navy for her work helping distinguish between wildlife and enemy submarines.

Ruth Rose (1896–1978) co-authored "The Arcturus Adventure" with William Beebe. She remarked on the Galapagos: "On this sunny April day the sea, sky, and land seemed wonderfully new, a vivid picture-world that had not been created long enough to lose its delicious freshness." And later, remembering a flock of flying white birds on Cocos Island: "Standing in that lovely sea-girt forest, in the jungle hush of noon-day, we thought of a Biblical snow-white bird with no feeling of sacrilege." Rose met her future husband, Arcturus's cinematographer Ernest Schoedsack, on the expedition. Together they would produce and write scripts for a number of famous early movies including King Kong.

a woman with a sketch pad in her lap drawing a fish propped on the desk in front of her
Isabel Cooper at work drawing a fish while aboard Arcturus. Image from "The Arcturus Adventure" by William Beebe and Ruth Rose, 1926.
a group of three women and five men standing on the deck of a vessel
Shown as they prepare to depart on Arcturus in 1925: from left, Ruth Rose, William Beebe, Elizabeth Trotter, Isabel Cooper, William Merriam, John Tee-Van, Ernest Schoedsack, and Jay Person. Image: New York Daily News, April 11, 1925.
A drawing shows colorful fish, one large one and five smaller ones beneath
Helen Tee-Van provided these fish illustrations for Plate I in "The Arcturus Adventure". Image from "The Arcturus Adventure" by William Beebe and Ruth Rose, 1926.

Dr. Lillian Segal (c.1895–1991) had perhaps one of the hardest subjects to study at a time where remote underwater camera technologies were not available: she was in charge of investigating how deep-sea fish produce light. Interviewed after the expedition had returned, Segal told a reporter: "The deep-sea life, however, was found to produce its own candle-power by direct methods. The fish possesses its own physical or chemical plant for producing light; and the light goes out immediately upon the death of the fish. That is what made our study of the working of deep-sea fish so slow and difficult. Demonstrations must be made while the fish is alive–that is, while he is in the water. But we are hoping to be able to stimulate, by concentrations of oxygen, the light of dead fish. That would immediately facilitate the study."

Helen Tee-Van (1893–1976) was, along with Segal, a science artist on the expedition. She and her husband John Tee-Van, general assistant to the scientific staff, were employees of the New York Zoological Society (where they first met) when they joined the Arcturus expedition. She served as the artist for 10 research expeditions for the Zoological Society, some of which she and John joined together. She would later write and illustrate children's books, and prepare science illustrations for numerous other books, articles, and encyclopedias.

Elizabeth S. Trotter (1889–1977), too, was an employee of the New York Zoological Society, in its Department of Tropical Research. On board she served as the assistant to W.K. Gregory who was in charge of vertebrate study on the expedition crew and later published her own paper from the expedition: "Brotulid Fishes From the Arcturus Oceanographic Expedition." Trotter—known on board as "Betty"—also gave fishing lessons to Ruth Rose who noted in "The Arcturus Adventure": "But alone of the staff, I had never gone fishing,—not only on this expedition but in all my life. So under the kindly tutelage of Betty Trotter and Bill [William H. Merriam, William Beebe's assistant], I had determined to sally forth today to catch a fish, not for science, possibly not even edible, but a fish caught merely for the sake of fishing." She would later write numerous articles and books, and serve as an assistant to author Booth Tarkington.

a woman writing on a raised and tilted desk across from a man
Elizabeth Trotter took dictation from author Booth Tarkington in 1938, 13 years after her adventures on Arcturus. Image: G. Herbert Whitney, courtesy of the Maine Historical Society, used under permission for educational purposes.

Hudson Canyon

The Arcturus expedition was only the first of many research voyages to visit Hudson Canyon. Many research vessels, with women on board as officers, mariners, and scientists, have visited since then.

An octopus sits on the seabed under a stone shelf with a sea star and different kinds of coral on it
An octopus, sea star, bivalves, and dozens of cup coral all share the same overhang in Hudson Canyon. Image: NOAA/BOEM/USGS.

Since 2000, several federally-funded expeditions to Hudson Canyon have taken place to map the seafloor, collect incredible images and videos of undersea features, identify methane seeps, and collect sediment samples and marine species that are new to science. These expeditions have increased our knowledge of this amazing ecosystem and highlighted the need for protections.

Learn more about the ongoing sanctuary designation process.

Elizabeth Moore is a senior policy advisor at NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries