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Martha Maxwell, Rocky Mountain Naturalist (Women in the West)

Martha Maxwell, Rocky Mountain Naturalist (Women in the West)

ISBN: 9780803261556
Publisher: Bison Books
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$19.98 $50.00

“See, there she is!” cried one visitor to the Centennial Exposition. “Just think! She killed all them animals,” echoed another. “There, that’s her!” All during the hot Philadelphia summer of 1876, throngs of people pushed and shoved their way into the Kansas-Colorado Building, eager to catch a glimpse of the small, dark-haired woman responsible for creating the extraordinary display of bears, deer, and other mammals cavorting over a Rocky Mountain landscape. Curious, skeptical, friendly—on and on they came, until the policemen stationed at the doors were hard-pressed to maintain control. The fairgoers were intent on seeing for themselves the “modern Diana” who had come all the way from the wilds of Colorado.

Maxine Benson’s finely crafted biography of Martha Maxwell illuminates the little-known but important career of a remarkable woman. Naturalist, taxidermist, museologist, artist—Maxwell pioneered in a number of fields new for women. Born in Pennsylvania in 1831 and educated in the Midwest, she traveled to the gold fields of Colorado with her husband in 1860.

A chance encounter with a German taxidermist determined her lifework, and Maxwell soon devoted her boundless energy to hunting and mounting all forms of Rocky Mountain wildlife, which she displayed in unusual habitat settings in her museum in Boulder and later in Denver. Her spreading fame led to an invitation to exhibit her collection at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where she achieved international renown.

As Maxwell’s major scientific and artistic contributions to natural history taxidermy and display were recognized, her influence carried to the Smithsonian Institution. Separated from her husband and alienated from her daughter, however, she became increasingly unhappy as her professional accomplishments grew. Her tragic and lonely death in 1881 revealed something of the price she paid for daring to be different.

Like that of other accomplished women of her era, Maxwell’s fame did not keep pace with the significant influence she had on her profession. Thanks to Maxine Benson, Martha Maxwell now takes her rightful place in the history of the West and of the nation.

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