Honoring the Past and Engaging the Future – Our Founder

Author: Sue Czarnecki, G’82

Our Founder
Catharine Wetherill Beekley, C’1910

This year the Association of Alumnae celebrates its 100th anniversary. As part of our year-long celebration, we are bringing to you some interesting stories about the Association and its alumnae. The first women at Penn, Gertrude Pierce, Anna Flanigen, and Mary Lewis, were chemistry students in the 1870s. Continuing in this fine tradition of Penn women in science, our founder, Catharine Wetherill Beekley was a biologist.

Catharine was born on June 3, 1888 and lived in Media. Her childhood home on 116 N. Lemon Street, built in 1890, still stands. Catharine was a gifted student and majored in biology at Penn. At that time biology was largely taught as botany and zoology. Founded in 1884, the Department of Biology was the third academic program at Penn to admit women. Catharine also was a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma Fraternity, Beta Alpha chapter, the first sorority on campus. The Beta Alpha chapter was established in 1890, and five of its six founders were biology students. One of its founders, Josephine Feger Ancona was the first woman to earn a bachelor’s degree at Penn, a degree in biology in 1895! Catharine graduated first in her class with a BS in Biology with Honors in 1910. At the June commencement, she received the JSH Prize in Biology for her distinguished studies, a prize she won earlier as a sophomore. At Penn the biology curriculum had a strong focus on botany, invertebrates and protozoology, and Catharine developed an interest in aquatic biology.

After graduation, Catharine began teaching at the Philadelphia High School for Girls as a second assistant in biology. She remained close to her fraternity sisters and hosted social meetings of her fraternity sisters at her home in Media. On February 7, 1912, on the invitation of Catharine, seventy women met at the College Club, 1300 Spruce Street, to form the Association of Alumnae. She later remarked “…the objective I had in mind…to further the interests of women students…” The mission of the Association of Alumnae was

 “to unite the women graduates of the University of Pennsylvania and to further among them a spirit of cooperation in work and fellowship; to promote the welfare of the women students at the University; and to keep  alive the interest of the women graduates in all the activities of their Alma  Mater.”

The first officers of the Association of Alumnae were Pauline Wolcott Spencer, Sarah Pleis Miller, Jennie Ritner Beale, Zeta Berenice Cundey, Eleanor Fulton Karsner, and Elizabeth N. Woolman Pennock. Of the six officers two were biologists, Sarah Miller and Eleanor Krasner, and one a chemist, Elizabeth Woolman Pennock.

The Association of Alumnae held its first annual meeting on June 19, 1912, Commencement Day, at 3:00 PM in the Botanical Gardens. The women graduates of the Class of 1912, Provost Dr. Edgar F. Smith, the Vice Provost, Deans and their families attended.  A Japanese comedy was presented and was followed by an informal reception.

Class of 1912
University Archives, The Women’s Record 1912

After two years of teaching at the high school, Catharine resigned and accepted a position as teacher and social worker at the Biological Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor, a division of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (Brooklyn Museum) established for the training of educators in marine biology. By 1917 she had written a book, Laboratory Manual in Biology and decided to pursue a research career in marine biology.During the summer of 1919, Catharine traveled to the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole and attended the course, Embryology, a decision that changed her life.

The following year, Catharine joined the faculty of the University of Oregon, Eugene as an instructor and later became assistant professor of zoology. It was there that Catharine met and married another biologist, Dr. Harry Barclay Yocom, on September 21, 1921. Dr. Yocom was born on July 12, 1888 in Pennsville, Ohio and received a BS from Oberlin College in 1912 and his MA and PhD from the University of California, Berkley in 1916 and 1918. In 1920, Harry moved from the City College of New York to the University of Oregon, Eugene where he accepted a position as assistant professor of zoology. Dr. Yocom later became professor and chair of the department and remained on the faculty for over twenty-five years.

Catharine shared an office with her husband in Deady Hall and taught a wide variety of courses, mostly in marine biology during the 1920s. She taught Marine Biology, Marine Zoology, Invertebrate Morphology, Marine Algae, Botany, Botanical and Zoological Problems and several botany and algae labs on campus and at the marine zoology station.

Beginning in the summer of 1924 and for many summers thereafter, the Yocoms and their students traveled to Sunset Beach on the Oregon coast, south of Coos Bay, to its sandy beaches, rocky shores, tide pools, and mud flats to conduct research on its marine residents. The Yocoms established the University’s marine zoology station and taught courses there each summer, setting up their laboratories under tents and residing first in tents and then at the Boy Scouts camp. From these primitive beginnings, the marine zoology station evolved to the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB) now located in Coos Bay a short drive north from Sunset Beach. Dr. Yocom, recognized as the founder of the OIMB, now a world-renown research institute, became its first director. In 1956 he was honored for his pioneering work and received the Outstanding Oregon Scientist Award from the Oregon Academy of Science. But, of course, we know that none of this would have been possible without his colleague, wife, and co-founder, Catharine.


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Filed under Association of Alumnae, Historical, Kristina C., Uncategorized

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