One of Los Angeles’ Early Women Marine Scientists: Sarah P. Monks

By Geraldine Knatz, Ph.D., AltaSea Board Trustee and Professor of the Practice of Policy and Engineering, a joint appointment between the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy and the Viterbi School of  Engineering.  
Sarah P. Monks (second from right, with spectacles, leaning against the wall) in the botany class at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, 1894.

Los Angeles Harbor, in San Pedro Bay, has long drawn scientific researchers, from its days as a 19th century muddy tide flat to today’s industrial complex of man-made channels and wharves.  A marine biological laboratory was established on Terminal Island as an outpost of the University of California and operated for the summers of 1901 and 1902.  As it was a teaching laboratory, it attracted women students and researchers.  One woman associated with the laboratory and who made contributions to the advancement of biology was Sarah P. Monks, an instructor at the Los Angeles Normal School (which later became UCLA).

Born in Cold Springs, New York, in 1841, Monks attended Vassar College and received her A. B. degree in 1871 and her masters in 1876.  In 1876, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.    She attended the women’s medical college in Philadelphia to study anatomy and microbiology.   While in Philadelphia she worked classifying birds for the Academy of Natural Sciences.   She moved to California and spent one year teaching at the College of Santa Barbara before taking a post at the Los Angeles Normal School where she taught from 1884 to 1906.  She taught courses in botany, physiology, zoology, chemistry, and drawing.  At the age of 53 she went back east to take a botany course at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole in 1894.  She associated herself with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Los Angeles Harbor as an independent researcher.  She also maintained a cottage on the harbor’s east jetty that connected Terminal Island with Deadman’s Island in a community, long gone, which was called East San Pedro.  Most of the residents in East San Pedro, including Monks, were squatters who built cottages (or in some cases shacks) on the jetty out of the flotsam and jetsam from harbor waters.  The chair on Monk’s porch was fashioned out of an old ships rudder and her stove and lamp were brought from the wreck of the vessel Portland

Monks named her cottage Phataria after the sea star which was the subject of her research.  She conducted experiments on regeneration in her waterside laboratory, keeping Phataria in tanks of water that required changing every day.  The daily trek over to Phataria from her San Pedro home involved a ferry ride followed by a trek along a broken boardwalk over water and jagged rocks, using a wire for support.  The Los Angeles Times dubbed Monks the “genius of the old government breakwater” in a profile published in 1907. Her profiles credit her as the discoverer of regeneration in sea stars. 

Her home in San Pedro could have been described as a “cabinet of curiosities,” walls lined with shelves filled with biological and geological specimens. Human skulls were perched on the risers to her second floor!  Well published, she was equally conversant in biology, zoology and geology.  In addition to teaching and her independent research, Monks was a collector.  As curator of the museum of the State Normal School, it is likely she used her collections for her teaching and to add to the school’s museum.  

Cyanotype photograph taken in 1906 of Monk’s cottage on the East Jetty where she conducted her biological research. White letters on the fence show part of the name Phataria. Photo courtesy of Huntington Library.

Monks retired from teaching at the Los Angeles Normal School in 1906 but continued her scientific pursuits.  After her studies of regeneration, she focused her research on the destructive wood borer Teredo, hoping to find a solution to the destruction of the harbor pilings which supported her waterfront laboratory.  

When Monks was still living, she was best known for a 300 page textbook used at the Los Angeles Normal School titled Anatomy Physiology Hygiene, compiled under the direction of the State Board of Education.   Unfortunately, she is not listed as the author.  Monks was given credit inside the book for all its original drawings. Monks is mentioned in Creese’s American and British Women of Science for her work in herpetology.   Monks donated her library, consisting mostly of Proceedings of the National Museum and the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences to the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in 1915.  It is believed that the gastropod Fusinus monksae was named for her by William Dall in 1915.

Monks not only enduring the annoyance of wearing Victorian clothing while conducting marine research, she was a pioneer in a field where few women ventured.  Likewise the rough and tumble harbor of the late 19th and early 20th century was not a place hospitable to women.  Monks serves as a model for any budding scientist who might feel intimidated by the daunting massive industrial complex of today’s Los Angeles harbor, yet sees it as an environment worthy of scientific research.

Sarah P. Monks, on left at her waterside research laboratory called Phataria. The group is looking toward San Pedro across the main channel of the Port of Los Angeles from Terminal Island. Courtesy of the San Pedro Historical Society.

Source:  Knatz, G. 2016.  Early Women Scientists of Los Angeles Harbor, Bull. Southern California Academy of Sciences.  115(2):98-111.

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