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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

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Putnam, Mary Louisa Duncan
(September 23, 1832–February 20, 1903)

–supporter of the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences—was born in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, and raised in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she enjoyed early privilege as the daughter of Illinois Congressman Joseph Duncan. The young Mary Louisa Duncan experienced early tragedy following the premature death of her father. During her family's subsequent financial struggles, Mary learned to run the family home and help raise her siblings. The family eventually recovered enough economically to allow Mary to visit political friends of her father in Washington, D.C. While there, she also explored the Smithsonian Institution and similar organizations, furthering a love for culture largely unavailable in her western home.

    Mary graduated from the Jacksonville Female Academy in 1851. Subsequently, on a trip to New York, she met her future husband, Charles E. Putnam, who agreed to forgo his plans to move to New York City and instead established his law practice in Davenport, Iowa. In 1855 Mary gave birth to the couple's first child, Joseph Duncan Putnam, and devoted herself to him while Charles spent long hours at his office.

    Gradually, as Charles built his practice and made several wise investments, the Putnams established themselves as a prosperous family in Davenport. The couple also continued to have children (11 in all), and Mary carried out the typical role expected of a woman of her time by educating and nurturing her children at home, always giving special interest to Duncan, who suffered from poor health. Duncan's illnesses and Mary's dedication to him would dominate the rest of her life.

    When Duncan showed an interest in nature, especially insects, Mary did all she could to encourage him, joining the fledgling Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences with Duncan and her husband and becoming its first female member. Initially, Mary did not play much of a role in the academy, but by 1874 Duncan had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and had to cancel his plans to attend Harvard University. When Mary realized that the academy was Duncan's best chance to fulfill his scientific dreams, she devoted increasing amounts of her energy to building the academy into an institution that she hoped would allow Duncan to become a nationally prominent scientist without having to leave Davenport.

    Lacking scientific training, Mary Putnam concentrated on fund-raising, driving the publication and international distribution of the academy's papers and the construction of a museum. She also continued to nominate friends for membership until more than half of the new members elected in 1875 were women, marking the academy's move toward a more populist organization and away from an exclusive circle of scientifically oriented men. In recognition of her efforts, the academy elected her as its president in 1879, an extremely rare occurrence in any scientific institution of the time and certainly for a woman who did not have strong academic training. Putnam subsequently promoted a relationship between the academy and the public schools and also expanded its role in the community through popular lectures.

    Duncan finally succumbed to his ill health in late 1881. More personal tragedies befell Mary Putnam during that decade: fire completely destroyed her beloved home, Wood-lawn, in 1887; and her husband died just six weeks later. For three years, Putnam spent most of her time away from Davenport, staying with friends and traveling in Europe. In her absence, the academy faltered, and membership diminished. Putnam returned from her travels reinvigorated, having seen the academy's publications in the collections of some of the finest European museums and libraries.

    Despite a large bequest to continue publication of the academy's proceedings, as the century closed the academy seemed to have outlived its original purpose. Yet it still retained its museum collections, which continued to expand. Putnam played a key role in acquiring a neighboring building in 1900, and she pushed the academy to expand its role in sponsoring cultural events and educational programming for the public. She also raised funds to support an active science program for Davenport's children, refurbishing old exhibits and arranging new ones until her death at age 71.

    Mary Putnam bequeathed the academy practically all of her property in honor of her son Duncan, but her personal legacy meant much more. Her expansion of the traditional roles of 19th-century women into the public realm of culture and science transformed a small scientific club into a public institution that continues to thrive as one of the largest regional museums in the Midwest, renamed the Putnam Museum in 1974 in honor of Mary Putnam and her family.
Sources For more, see Scott Roller, "'It Is More Than Gold to Me': Mary Louisa Duncan Putnam and the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences," Iowa Heritage Illustrated 81 (2000), 50–65; and Victoria Cain, "From Specimens to Stereopticons: The Evolution of the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences," Annals of Iowa (forthcoming).
Contributor: Scott Roller

Cite as: Roller, Scott. "Putnam, Mary Louisa Duncan" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 12 December 2017