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Mary Jane Rathbun: Hail the Crustacean Queen!

March 25, 2021

In celebration of our 150th anniversary, we take a look at how Mary Jane Rathbun became one of the world’s leading experts on crabs and crab taxonomy.

Four women, including Mary Jane Rathbun, sitting on a Fish Commission wharf dock in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

One visit to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1881 and Mary Jane Rathbun was hooked. It was the first time she had ever seen the sea. In that moment, the winds changed and set her on a scientific course—a life-long journey studying crustaceans. 

This year marks NOAA Fisheries’ 150th anniversary. We’re taking a look back at some of the notable women scientists who made amazing contributions to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and its research.


Collage graphic of four women, including Mary Jane Rathbun, sitting on a Fish Commission wharf dock in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 1880 map of Woods Hole's Great Harbor, landscape image of Harbor Hill looking towards Woods Hole, image of mermaids purses and small starfish.

Mary Jane Rathbun was born on June 11, 1860 in Buffalo, New York. She attended Buffalo public schools and graduated from Central School in 1878. Three years later in 1881, she accompanied her brother, Richard, to Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He began working as a scientific assistant for the U.S. Fish and Fisheries Commission, which would later become NOAA Fisheries.


Collage graphic of handwritten memoir page, specimen identification cards, image of a flame crab

That same year she took a volunteer position assisting Spencer Baird, U.S. Fish Commissioner and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1884, she accepted a modestly paid position as clerk for the Fish Commission. While at the Fish Commission, she spent her time sorting, labeling, and recording crustacean specimens collected by Commission vessels. This work inspired her life-long study of crustaceans around the world.


Collage graphic of U.S. Fish Commission vessel "Grampus," Smithsonian Institution specimen identification card, digital watercolor of a gladiator box crab.

In 1886, she transferred to the U.S. National Museum, now known as the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building to work in the Museum’s Department of Marine Invertebrates. While her brother was the curator of the collection, she took over the general supervision and care. This included keeping records, cataloging specimen samples, and coordinating the flood of samples coming in from the Fish Commission’s expanding investigations of U.S. fishery resources. The vast knowledge and skills she gathered while working at the Fish Commission helped her sort and organize the museum’s specimens so others could reference and study them easily.


Five title pages from publications authored by Mary Jane Rathbun spilling out from a red leather book.

Over the years, Mary Jane Rathbun became one of the world’s leading experts on crab taxonomy. By the end of her career she had described 1147 species, 63 genera, and 5 higher categories of crustaceans. She also authored more than 150 publications. Her two most notable monographs are The Grapsoid Crabs of America, U.S. National Museum Bulletin 97 and The Cancroid Crabs of America, U.S. National Museum Bulletin 152.


Collage graphic of crab illustration page from a Mary Jane Rathbun publication, image of Mary Jane Rathbun working in the Smithsonian Institution's Great Hall, image of Mary Jane Rathbun at a desk looking at some fossils.

She focused a lot of her attention on sorting out crustacean nomenclature—the system scientists use to name species. She rigorously used the International Rules of Zoological Nomenclature in her identifications and classifications. Her work and devotion made her one of the world’s leading authorities on crab taxonomy. It also led to an honorary master’s degree in 1916 and doctoral degree in 1917. That was something she probably didn’t imagine possible back in 1881 when her scientific journey began.


Credits and Acknowledgements

We thank the following for contributing information, images, and other digital media for this web feature:

For more information, please contact Heather Soulen.