Helen Thompson Gaige’s passion for frogs, salamanders, lizards and more was unusual for a woman at the turn of the century. She defied gender stereotypes by becoming an expert in zoology and launching herself into globetrotting adventures to collect and study specimens. Her scientific legacy endures in the archive—and beyond.

Growing up in the middle of Michigan’s “Thumb” in the 1890s, Helen Thompson was born into a changing world. Railroads unfurled across the country, the use of electric lights was slowly spreading, and more and more women were pursuing higher education.

Helen’s father was able to encourage her studies. A believer in the importance of education, Charles E. Thompson, widely known as “Charley,” had attended Goldsmith, Bryant & Stratton, a small business college in Detroit. He was well known for trying his hand at a wide range of local jobs in the town of Bad Axe, from bookkeeper to probate judge. Helen watched her father throw himself into new pursuits with determination, again and again.

She decided to follow her father’s footsteps: she would get a degree.

Two, in fact.

She applied to the University of Michigan and was accepted in 1906.

By 1907, Helen had discovered the U-M Museum of Zoology, and within it, the reptiles and amphibians collection. A detailed history of U-M, called the Encyclopedic Survey, notes that Helen was seen as “a student of natural history.” After earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1909, a teacher’s certificate, and her Master of Arts in 1910, she applied for a position at the Museum of Zoology.

It was an unusual choice in the early 20th century. Of the 20 Master of Science degrees awarded by the University of Michigan in 1910, only one was awarded to a woman.

“We know very little about the early women of science,” Margaret Rossiter writes in “Women Scientists in America before 1920,” published in American Scientist magazine. What is verifiable is that “they had fewer job opportunities and lower status, were more often unemployed, and less often considered eminent by their fellow scientists.”

The academic journal Ichthyology & Herpetology notes that Helen was “among the first professional women herpetologists in the United States.”

The Sea Serpent and the Explorer
Helen obtained her position at the U-M Museum of Zoology “by enthusiasm and competence,” according to the Encyclopedic Survey.

Her fieldwork and publications were regularly reported on in The Michigan Daily. The paper even asked her about the Loch Ness Monster.

“These stories about sea monsters appear quite frequently, but we have yet to see one,” she said. “People are inclined to exaggerate the size of snakes that they may see. They are so frightened at seeing a snake of any sort that its size increases in their imagination.”

The water would be far too cold for a sea snake in Scotland, she insisted. (She then gave a short lecture on how sea snakes swim.)