Twitter helps solve decades-old mystery of lone black woman pictured among male scientists
The 1971 International Conference on the Biology of Whales took place between June 10 and 12, near Shenandoah National Park in Luray, Va., and was attended by nearly 40 leading scientists and conservationists from across the U.S., Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, the Soviet Union, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Chile and Norway. (Twitter)
Jeff Lagerquist, CTVNews.ca Staff
Published Friday, March 16, 2018 12:16PM EDT
An unidentified woman in a black and white group photo from a 1971 marine biology conference sparked an amateur sleuthing mission on Twitter led by a relentless Utah artist determined to learn more about the mysterious lone female in an otherwise male crowd.
Candace Jean Andersen, a self-described artist and writer living in the suburbs outside Salt Lake City, turned to Twitter after scrutinizing the caption on the 47-year-old photo of whale enthusiasts.
“Can you help me know her?” Andersen asked her nearly 2,000 Twitter followers on March 9. “She is the only woman, and the only one captioned ‘not identified’ in the article I found the photo in. All the men are named.”
“I can’t resist a mystery, and this one has me googling like mad. No name for you, but I’m learning a lot about 20th century black women scientists. Very cool!” Twitter user @mfortuin11 wrote on March 10.
“Wonderful,” Andersen responded.
She tweeted at the 1971 conference’s sponsor, the Smithsonian Institute, following a tip that the mystery woman had worked as an administrator there.
According to a scanned document from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the 1971 International Conference on the Biology of Whales took place between June 10 and 12, near Shenandoah National Park in Luray, Va., and was attended by nearly 40 leading scientists and conservationists from across the U.S., Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, the Soviet Union, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Chile and Norway.
As the online investigation spread through retweets, the conversation picked up offline, too.
Ahem, Twitter:— Candace Jean Andersen (@mycandacejean) March 11, 2018
Word came in from Robert (Bob) Brownell, conference attendee, back-middle in photo, who said Mystery Lady may have been admin.
"She worked for Clyde Jones at Fish and Wildlife Services in the early 1970s," he said. pic.twitter.com/oLtn1kALIR
A conference attendee suggested the woman worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1970s.
A potential match for the woman was ruled out. And questions continued to swirl within Smithsonian alumni circles.
Okay Twitter: updates!— Candace Jean Andersen (@mycandacejean) March 11, 2018
She's not been confirmed yet.
An attendee of the conference told @bluewhalenews this woman is definitely NOT Suzanne Montgomery Contos, as many were/are! suggesting. Big thanks for that info.
Then, @themediawitch was in touch with Suzanne herself.
I'll ask Jim Mead, Smithsonian Marine Mammal Curator Emeritus, and Bob Brownell. They're my mentors, and I worked with them while at the museum. Suzanne Montgomery transferred over to the Marine Mammal Commission, now retired. I have a few guesses, but they will know for sure.— Dee Allen (@AllenZiphiid72) March 11, 2018
On March 12, there was a breakthrough.
“TWITTER! I’ve arrived at something big!,” Andersen wrote. “I’ll be right back.”
A box of archived documents from the Smithsonian offered more hope for a positive identification.
Okay, okay.. SO, some lovely ladies with @smithsonian are *on top of things,* and Deborah in Archives ordered a box from their off-site storage facility that contains a folder named "Sheila Minor, 1972-1975."— Candace Jean Andersen (@mycandacejean) March 13, 2018
She'll send me relevant scans of those contents once it arrives. (!)
The trove of archives revealed a transcript of the conference proceedings. Minor was not listed, but a man believed to be her boss was. Receipts from the hotel where the attendees stayed also surfaced.
The suspense continued to build until a March 14 tweet from Andersen, complete with a rainbow emoji.
✨ Mystery Woman is in fact Sheila.— Candace Jean Andersen (@mycandacejean) March 15, 2018
And I verified that because I’ve been in touch with her!
(Thanks so much to @straightAstoner and @themediawitch for narrowing the search.)
But, most importantly… pic.twitter.com/HQOHdMmHVl
Scanned documents from the Smithsonian Institute revealed she was no mere administrator at the prestigious gathering of scientists.
“She was a Biological Research Technician for (the) Smithsonian Institution in (at least) 1972 & 73, a position which required a BS or MA degree,” Andersen tweeted.
The result became even more satisfying when photos of documents revealed that Minor encouraged young people to embrace science by speaking at elementary schools, giving lectures in biology classes, and leading children’s field trips and study groups.
Andersen tweeted that Minor was appointed to the Smithsonian Women’s Council, was a member of the American Society of Mammologists, and worked for several U.S. federal agencies throughout a 35-year career, including the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Office of Environmental Policy & Compliance.
“Sheila is a wicked-smart babe,” Andersen wrote. “I'm so happy we found her together, Twitter.”
If Sheila finds time to send me anything else, I'll share what she says is okay to share in this thread.— Candace Jean Andersen (@mycandacejean) March 15, 2018
But, I hope in reading it & all the sleuthing within, you've been inspired to learn about some of the women that have been named here.