Women’s History Month: A Filmmaker and a Microfossil Expert

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Osa_Johnson Airplane
Osa Johnson in an airplane with a gibbon.Martin & Osa Johnson(American, active 1917 - 1937), 1918-1936 Digital Positive from gelatin on glass negative, 3.25x4.25 in
Courtesy George Eastman House

“I went to Africa…for just the same reason that lots of girls settled down on Main Street back home—just to be with my husband,” explorer and filmmaker Osa Johnson was once quoted as saying in an article called “A Wife in Africa.” 

But Johnson, who was also billed as “The Heroine of 1,000 Thrills,” and “the greatest woman explorer” didn’t just play the rule of dutiful assistant to her adventurer husband, Martin. As a team, the Johnsons led expeditions around the world in the 1920s and 1930s, producing 14 feature films, 37 educational shorts, and dozens of filmed lectures. Several of these pieces were commissioned by the Museum and presented to sold-out crowds as part of fundraising efforts for the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. Prints of some of the Johnsons’ films, including the 1928 Simba, King of Beasts, are held in the Museum’s archives.

A 1937 plane crash in California killed Martin and left Osa in a wheelchair, but after only a few months, she was back on her feet and leading an expedition to Africa. She had previously deferred to her husband’s cinematic talents but now declared, “I can grind a movie camera as well as any man.” She passed away in 1953, in the middle of planning another expedition. 

Archival image of micropaleontologist Angelina Messina using a microscope, with specimen jars in front of her and some specimens laid out on the table.
Angelina Messina
AMNH Library Special Collections

Curator of Micropaleontology Angelina Messina found beauty and wonder in some of the Museum’s tiniest specimens. She joined the staff in the 1930s, and with the help of Assistant Curator Eleanor Salmon, prepared catalogs of foraminifera—miniscule organisms that provide important markers to geologists and hold vital records of ancient climates within their fossilized chambers. 

Messina’s work won international recognition. Her 69-volume Catalogue of Foraminifera was a seminal work in micropaleontology, used in universities and every major micropaleontological laboratory of the large oil companies, and she also co-founded the journal Micropaleontology in 1955. Her work classifying the Museum’s foraminifera collection is still used by paleontologists, geologists, and climate scientists today. The collection itself is now part of a National Science Foundation-funded project to re-house and CT scan important specimens.

This March, we’ll be profiling women in science across the Museum, so make sure to follow along on the Museum’s social media channels-- @AMNH on Twitter, and on Facebook and tumblr.