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EMILIE SNETHLAGE (1868-1929)


Snethlage did things women rarely did at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was among the first women in Germany to earn a PhD; the only woman scientist in South America to head a significant museum; and the only woman in Brazil devoted to field ornithology, an occupation difficult enough for a man and “deprecated by the old systematists and considered a vulgar occupation” (Sick 1993, 38). As Sick also noted, she chose the most inhospitable places to explore, because that is where there was most to be discovered. Traveling where and the way she did, there were bound to be a few mishaps, and the best known photograph of her reveals a missing finger on her right hand, the result of an event she related to George Cherrie.  She was being paddled in a canoe in the heat of the day and lazily let her hand fall into the water – “very foolishly,” she told Cherrie. “But as you well know, it is easy and natural when one is at peace with all the world to become absent minded. I let my fingers trail through the water for a few minutes and was enjoying its delightful coolness when, suddenly, I felt a sharp blow on my hand. I thought the man who was sitting behind me had inadvertently struck me on a forward dip of his paddle. ‘Mind your paddle!’ I cried. At the same time, jerking my hand out of the water, I was horrified to see a good sized pirañha clinging to it . . . When the pirañha dropped back into the river, my middle finger went with it, clipped off as cleanly as if done by steel pliers” (Cherrie 1930, 75-76).  Like many such stories this one was later embellished, with the fish not so efficient and Snethlage having to amputate her own finger.