Minna Ernestine Jewell (1892-1985) was an early 20th century aquatic ecologist and zoologist who studied Midwestern aquatic habitats extensively. Although she has gained some recognition for her contributions in ecology, a fact that has gone unreported is her brief affiliation with the Illinois State Water Survey.
Jewell was born Feb. 9, 1892 in Irving, Kansas, the fourth of seven children of Lyman Leander and Mary Jane Moores Jewell. Her parents had been neighbors and schoolteachers in Blue Rapids Township prior to marrying. The family owned a farm in Irving, Kansas where Minna lived until she graduated from Irving High School in 1910. Jewell enrolled at Colorado College in 1910, where she studied biology and graduated with honors in 1914. Yearbooks show she participated in the social life of the campus, engaged in extracurriculars such as the Dramatic Club, and had a wry sense of humor. Parasitologist William Walter Cort was a biology instructor at Colorado College during Jewell’s junior year, in between his MA and PhD work in zoology at the University of Illinois. Cort may have influenced Jewell’s interest in zoology and in pursuing graduate work, as well as her choice of graduate schools.
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Jewell began her graduate work in 1914 in zoology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and was advised for her master's by Henry Baldwin Ward. The topic of her thesis was a new species of cestode (tapeworm) that she discovered in cricket frogs collected in a drainage ditch north of Urbana. She examined additional specimens collected by Cort, and acknowledged Ward for his suggestions and for “encouragement and inspiration which have made the work enjoyable.” She earned her MA in 1915, and published the species description for Cylindrotaenia americana in the Journal of Parasitology in 1916.
She remained at Illinois for her doctorate, for which she was advised by Victor E. Shelford. She was inducted into the scientific research honor society Sigma Xi in 1916 and presented at the second annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in New York in December of that year. In 1917 she was named a Fellow in Zoology for which she received a stipend of $350 from the university. Her PhD was awarded in 1918. Her dissertation research on water chemistry effects on tadpoles showed that pH and oxygen concentrations were key factors in regeneration and survival in tadpoles and was later published in the Journal of Experimental Zoology.
The newly minted Dr. Jewell’s first position was at the Illinois State Water Survey. She started in late 1918 and had moved on by January 1920, but her contributions during that short time were substantial. At the American Water Works Association’s Illinois Section in March of 1919, she reported on her work on the Sangamon River, proposing aquatic invertebrates (mollusks, bryozoans, sponges, and aquatic insects) as water quality indicators. She called the Sangamon a “seriously polluted stream” due to the absence of these indicators in a 75-mile stretch downstream of Decatur. A spirited discussion between Jewell and H.E. Babbitt (then Associate Professor of Municipal and Sanitary Engineering at the University of Illinois) followed, covering among other things the state of the Illinois River. Her paper, “Quality of water in Illinois streams” with a full transcription of the discussion was published in the Journal of the American Water Works Association that year. Illinois State Water Survey Bulletin no. 16 (1920) included two papers by Jewell. “The quality of water in the Sangamon River” is an extensive and detailed comparison of water chemistry and biota upstream and downstream of Decatur. “Experiments on the preservation of mud samples” addressed ways to improve the accuracy of tests for ammonia and total nitrogen, using samples from Boneyard Creek. At the December 1920 Ecological Society of America meeting in Chicago, Jewell presented on the Big Muddy River based on her work at ISWS. This paper, “The fauna of an acid stream,” was published in Ecology in 1922.
By January of 1920, Jewell was living on the Milwaukee-Downer College campus and teaching zoology. In 1923 and 1924 she was both Assistant Professor of Zoology at Milwaukee-Downer and a zoology instructor at Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University). She also assisted with summer session instruction and research at the University of Michigan Biological Station in the early 1920s.
In late 1924 Jewell became Assistant Professor of Zoology at Kansas State. She taught general zoology, animal ecology, and appears to have launched their field zoology course in fall of 1924, involving “collection, identification and preservation of various local animals with notes on their life histories, behavior and distribution.” Jewell was inducted into Kansas State’s chapter of Phi Kappa Phi honor society on April 20, 1926. She advised at least eight master’s students, four of them women. While some of her advisees focused on fish culture, Jewell’s research emphasized the study of natural ecosystems. Her “Aquatic Biology of the Prairie” describes how the prairie setting, with extreme flooding and an absence of tree cover and organic inputs, influences the biota found in prairie streams and rivers. In this work she drew comparisons between rivers and streams in Kansas and those she studied in Illinois while at the Water Survey.
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Her appointment at Kansas State ended January 30, 1930 with her resignation, and she joined the faculty of Thornton Junior College in Harvey, Illinois early in 1930. There she taught courses in zoology and botany each semester until her retirement in 1961. She was engaged with students, establishing Thornton’s Lambda Epsilon scholastic honor society in 1938 and sponsoring it until she retired, and even sponsoring their Drama Club for a few years. She also continued to conduct research, present, and publish. For her most cited work, “An Ecological Study of the Fresh-Water Sponges of Northeastern Wisconsin,” (Ecological Monographs vol. 5(4) 1935) she began sampling in 1931 and covered 127 lakes and 17 streams, collected 1,389 sponge samples, and found 10 sponge species, one not previously known from Wisconsin.
The extent and scope of Jewell’s research is noteworthy, and particularly so for a woman of her era. Between 1916 and 1959, she published 17 articles, made at least 14 conference presentations, and contributed a chapter to a classic limnology text. Over the course of her career she studied and described aquatic systems in Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, and Wisconsin, including rivers, lakes, and prairies. She studied tapeworms, amphibians, fishes, and sponges, becoming a leading expert on the latter. Citation of her work by other researchers continues to this day and shows the continuing relevance of her work and her enduring legacy.
To learn more, please visit the online annotated Minna Ernestine Jewell Bibliography. During the month of March, a small display on Jewell’s life and work can be viewed at Funk ACES Library, 1101 S. Goodwin, Urbana, IL.
Photo credit for middle photo: The Pike’s Peak Nugget (Vol. 15). 1914 Colorado College. Contributed to the Internet Archive by Tutt Library https://archive.org/details/coloradocollegenv15colo/page/n44/mode/1up
Photo credit for last photo: Caldron. 1959. Thornton Junior College. Contributed to the Internet Archive by South Suburban College https://archive.org/details/caldron1959sscy/page/34/mode/1up