In the 1910s it was unusual for a woman to be a recognized professional beyond established women’s work like school teaching, midwifery, or Vaudeville performing. But Isabel Cooper was unusual.
In 1917, at just 25 years old, this “mere slip of a girl,” as she jokingly described herself, became a scientific illustrator for the expeditions of naturalist William Beebe to the South American jungle. She had already established herself as a working professional artist, earning an independent living in New York City. This was rare for a woman.
Isabel traveled on eight of Beebe’s research expeditions between 1917 and 1925, including two journeys by ship which included the Galapagos Islands, and six seasons in the jungle in British Guiana (now Guyana) in South America.
She not only took up this work, she largely invented the techniques involved, since there was no training for it.
Snake detail by Isabel Cooper from Galapagos: World’s End
Isabel also spent time doing medical illustrations for a dermatologist and syphilologist, Dr. John A. Fordyce, at City Hospital in New York City. There Isabel worked to capture skin conditions with the details of color, shape and texture her employer required.
With the New York Zoological Society, she perfected the art of detailed, color animal illustration from live specimens before color photography was available. Isabel’s sharp, clear, artistically-appealing, but scientifically-valuable work got attention right away from the scientists and philanthropists involved with New York City science and exploration, and her work went on exhibit at the Bronx Zoo.
As Beebe’s fame and publicity grew, attention came to the women he employed. Their stories caught notice beyond the science/exploration community. Dozens of newspapers profiled Isabel, the “Bryn Mawr girl” who was living this exotic life.
The story for popular consumption
The newspapers thought Isabel and the other women recruited by William Beebe for his expeditions were interesting because they were women, sailing to the tropics, living shipboard or in jungle camps to do scientific work.
Story in the lead-up to the Arcturus puts the whole adventure on the women. Winston-Salem Journal, November 16, 1924
The reporters looked for, and used, story angles based on that. One Brooklyn Daily Eagle story reveled in it as Beebe prepared his 1925 Arcturus Expedition to the Sargasso Sea and Galapagos:
“Not to be all work and no play”
“The expedition is not to be all work and no play. The Arcturus on its upper deck has a fine new dance floor and part of the ship’s equipment is a powerful radio receiving set. In the party are three women, all of whom, in addition to their scientific qualifications, can dance. After the day’s work of dredging and diving and looking through the microscope is over the party will tune in on the best jazz music program in New York and there will be dancing under a topical moon in the warm tropical climate.”i
For how could these lovely ladies manage without dancing?
Springfield Sunday Union and Republican, February 21, 1926
Another reporter took up the “girl artist” angle. The story asked: “Where is a young woman most likely to find true happiness? On board a tramp steamer sailing the seven seas? Wandering along some far-flung shore where leaping waves whisper mystery and adventure? In unexplored jungles teeming with curious wild life? Or–in love and marriage–in a bungalow in one’s own homeland?
“These are questions that Miss Isabel Cooper has been trying to answer ever since her return to New York from the latest of her adventurous journeys to little known parts of the earth.
“Hidden away in every girl’s heart at twenty,” the article asserted, writing about a young “girl” who was now 33 years age, “are two dreams. One is a vision of far-off places where romance is supposed to lurk in waiting jut around every corner, where the world is always flooded with sunlight and where men are either great lovers or daring rascals. The other image is that of a model home, an exact replica of the blue and white kitchen in the window of the electrical store–a home where a perfect oven never burns the biscuits and where the embroidered guest towels are never unfolded, much less mussed.”
In fact, her letters tell the truth, she had already decided to end the journeying for the thrilling prospect of being with Charles Mahaffie, whom she had met just before committing to the Arcturus Expedition.
The profile ended with, “Choosing between love and a home and adventure is not an easy matter. Miss Cooper is still undecided whether she will be on the ‘Arcturus’ when it sails from New York again. If she is, it is whispered she will leave behind her a very disappointed young man.ii” This was referring to Charles, who was then 40 years old.
i “Scientists Will Spend Month on Mysterious Sargasso Sea,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 15, 1925.
ii “Love, or Life of Adventure?,” Springfield Sunday Union and Republican,” February 21, 1926.