Sophie Lutterlough rose from an elevator operator to helping discover 40 type specimens

Theodora Aidoo Jul 2, 2020 at 04:00pm

July 02, 2020 at 04:00 pm | History, Women

Theodora Aidoo

Theodora Aidoo | Staff Writer

July 02, 2020 at 04:00 pm | History, Women

Sophie Lutterlough, Smithsonian's first female elevator operator - Pic Credit: siarchives.si.edu

Sophie Lutterlough, an American entomologist, was the first woman elevator operator in the National Museum of Natural History. When she applied for a job at the museum in 1943, she was offered the job of an elevator operator and was told that the quality of her performance would determine if other women would be hired for that job.

African American women had it tough securing jobs in the 1940s as a result of discrimination and it was almost impossible for African Americans to secure scientific jobs at the Smithsonian.

But Lutterlough’s resilience paid off. According to Smithsonian history, she enjoyed learning so much that she found the museum a fascinating place to work and would often study the museum’s exhibits on her lunch break.

“There was no information desk in the museum in those years, so visitors would often ask her questions about what was on display. Mrs. Lutterlough set about to become what she called ‘a one-women information bureau’”, the museum recalled. 

Born Sophie G. Mack, she married Henry E. Lutterlough in 1941. Initially, Mrs. Lutterlough was offered the opportunity to become the first woman elevator operator in the museum. Within a few years, two more women joined her as operators, reflecting the good impression she had made according to Smithsonian.

Lutterlough graduated from Washington D.C.’s elite Dunbar High School where she had taken biology courses and developed interest in the natural history exhibits.

She was hired as an insect preparator in 1957 after asking J. F. Gates Clark, an insect curator, if there was any work for her in the department he chaired. She was assigned to sort and prepare a huge collection of almost every type of insect in existence. 

“She knew little about entomology, but was never daunted by the challenge.  She consulted entomological textbooks and found pictures and descriptions to help her identify what she was looking at through her microscope. Occasionally she needed help, but worked hard to develop her own expertise”, the Smithsonian Institution Archives recorded.

Two years later, Mrs. Lutterlough was appointed as Curator Ralph Crabill’s research assistant. She helped restore and classify Myriapoda, an insect group that contains over 13,000 species.

Sophie Lutterlough - Wikipedia
Sophie Lutterlough sits in front of a microscope in the Department of Entomology – Pic Credit: siarchives.si.edu

She worked with Crabill for 24 years. During those times, she “continued to increase her knowledge by reading entomology books, asking questions of specialists, and taking college courses in science, writing, and German to gain the skills needed for her position”.

In 1965, she was said to have tackled the F. C. Bishopp collection of ticks.  “Almost all of the specimens had become dried out, so she carefully treated some 35,000 ticks with a trisodium phosphate solution and then slowly added alcohol to restore them”.

In 1979, a mite of the genus Pygmephorus was named after her. Pygmephorus lutterloughae is a large mite, described from a sample in the NMNH collection (No. 3782), collected in Oregon in 1970.

She and Dr. Crabill discovered some 40 type specimens mixed into the general collection that same year.  After 40 years at the museum, she retired in 1983.

She was honoured with an Exemplary Service Award and died in Monroe Township on 11 February 2009, at the age of 98.

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