Mary Scott Skinker
Died: December 19, 1948
Rachel Carson’s earliest and most important scientific mentor, Mary Scott Skinker’s young adulthood was spent in Kirkwood,Mo., a suburb of St. Louis where she was the second youngest of a family of eleven. She began teaching in the St Louis public schools after graduating from high school. Mary Scott was ambitious for herself and moved to Colorado to earn a Colorado Teacher’s certificate and then to New York City in 1922 to complete a bachelor’s degree in science at Columbia Teachers College, and an MA in Zoology the following year.
She joined the faculty of Pennsylvania College for Women in 1923 and became acting head of the biology the following year. Rachel Carson became her biology student in 1926 and Skinker’s mentorship of Carson began when Carson bravely changed her major from English to Biology in January 1928.
Although Skinker was not trained in botany she was a keen naturalist and sensitive to the preservation of rare species of plants and animals. Skinker did not awaken an ecological consciousness in Carson, she only had to broaden what was already deeply entrenched.
Skinker took a leave from Pennsylvania College for Women to continue doctoral study at Johns Hopkins University in 1929 and Carson, deeply upset tried to follow Skinker there to start her own graduate work citing interests in genetics and comparative anatomy. Her student loans and general lack of money however forced her to stay and graduate with her class in 1929.
Carson was admitted to Hopkins in comparative zoology with a small scholarship. Skinker supported Carson for a summer fellowship to work at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole and endorsed her scholarship application at Johns Hopkins University.
Health issues prevented Mary Scott from completing her course work at Hopkins but she took courses at George Washington University at night and completed her doctorate in 1933. She was employed at the zoological division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a researcher and staff scientist in parasitology at the USDA until 1938.
Skinker’s mentorship of Carson continued while the two were in the Washington/Baltimore area. It was Skinker who insisted that Carson prepare for the federal civil service examinations in several zoological areas so that when a job opening came Carson would be ready. She coached Carson for the exams parasitology, wildlife biology and aquatic biology which she tooks in January 1935 scoring higher than any previous female applicant. With Skinker’s further recommendation, Carson was offered employment with Elmer Higgins at the U. S. Bureau of Fisheries in 1935 writing radio scripts on life under the sea thus initiating her government science career.
As Carson’s career was expanding, Skinker’s government career was collapsing. Between 1938 and 1948 Skinker worked in several boarding school positions in New York City, Texas, and finally joining the faculty of the National Education College in Chicago preparing young women for elementary school teaching.
Rachel Carson was called to Chicago in December 1948 when Skinker collapsed and died several weeks later of cancer at age fifty-seven. She was buried in Kirkwood, Missouri.
Mary Scott Skinker moulded Rachel Carson’s ecological consciousness, nurtured her talent, supported her ambitions, set fire to her mind, and loved her unconditionally.