Martha Maxwell — naturalist and taxidermist
[Portrait of Martha Maxwell from “Mrs. M.A. Maxwell’s Rocky Mountain Series”]
[ca. 1870s]
Naturalist Martha Maxwell brought Western fauna into public view through her skills at taxidermy. She defined the art of creating natural history dioramas with animals displayed in their natural habitats. An aspiring scientist, she left Oberlin College for lack of money and journeyed west to join the Gold Rush. Maxwell corresponded with the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Spencer Fullerton Baird, sending him bird specimens. Today a few of those specimens survive and are the only examples of her work and evidence of her two Rocky Mountain Museums in Denver and Boulder, Colorado. In 1877, a subspecies of the Eastern Screech Owl, Megascops asio maxwelliae, was named in her honor. To support her work and her family, Maxwell established a museum and charged admission. Her Rocky Mountain Museum first opened in Boulder in 1874 and moved to Denver the following year. Maxwell was invited to show her work in the Colorado Building at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Her display was one of the most popular at the internationally attended event. So many people asked whether the displays could have been done by a woman that she put up a sign reading “Woman’s Work.” Maxwell shot, trapped, and prepared all her own specimens, noting that “The world demands proof of woman’s capabilities.”
[Portrait of Martha Maxwell from “Mrs. M.A. Maxwell’s Rocky Mountain Series”], [ca. 1870s], Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Accessed April 24, 2024,