Edith Abigail Purer:
California's First Woman Professional Ecologist of 1930s,
California State Parks Advocate in San Diego,
Author, San Diego Resident and San Diego Teacher
Coastal Sand Dunes, Coastal Salt Marsh, and Vernal Pools

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Compiled by
Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek
Conservation Biologist & Geographer
Wetlands Action Network & Ballona Institute


Edith Purer was an early advocate for California State Parks, and did this from the bully pulpit as California's first woman professional scientific ecologist. In 1933, with a recently completed Ph.D. dissertation from USC, she then published a small book about the native plants and wildflowers at a new California State Park. In that book, she talked about the importance of State Parks. Her Park, Silver Strand State park, that she had done research for a Ph.D dissertation had just become a new State Park; She had come to care passionately about Silver Strand State Park. Being a resident of San Diego and spokeswoman for Silver Strand State Park during the Depression was significant. She was a science teacher at Hoover High School. In addition, she sought to publish her findings in Ecology and Ecological Monographs, two distinguished scientific journals of the Ecological Society of America (ESA). She also presented her research in scientific forums at the ESA annual meetings where all the professional ecologists of the United States gather. Of course, in the 1930s, she would have been one of the few women particpating in these annual meetings. Her Ph.D advisor, Howard de Forest, was vice-president of the ESA, so that he would have been a support for her at the national ESA meetings. From this professional grounding, she ultimately wrote a total of 8 peer-reviewed scientific research articles six in ESA scientific journals, one for the California Botanical Society, and one for the Indiana Academy of Sciences. A total of 144 pages of research were published in these 8 articles. There may be even more articles, that have not surfaced as yet from this historical research.

The California natural ecosystems that Edith Purer studied (coastal sand dunes, vernal pools and coatal salt marshes) are among the most threatened, most rare, and most impacted natural environments of California and the United States. It is worthy at this time in California's history and the current environmental crisis and concern for wetland losses, to revisit the life and research of Edith Abigail Purer. As an example of needed research, an effort to locate more of her photographs of 70 years ago would be finding "thousands of words" as in the colloquial phrase, "a picture is worth a thousand words." At least 8 photographs by Edith Purer are known to exist at this time.

In addition to being a scientist, teacher, environmentalist, and California State Parks supporter, Edith Purer was an artist. Here are even more possibilities of "thousands of words." One of her lovely paintings is reproduced at the bottom of the web site and clearly demonstrates the dual nature of Edith Purer. Although it does not appear that she studied deserts professionally as a ecological scientist, she did collect some plants in the San Diego Desert, and she studied the desert through the medium of art. Her painting had an ecological aspect to it by having painted a native plant in the foreground. We know that her painting of the beautiful desert landscape scene dates to about the 1930s. It was painted at one of our most beautiful California State Parks, apparently at Palm Canyon in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Edith Purer was born in 1895, so she would have been about 35-40 years of age at the time of the painting. Edith was a unique individual as she wsa both a scientist and an artist, something found in only a very few people. It is reminiscent of Robert Stebbins, a noted herpetologist-scientist and emeritus professor at UC Berkeley, but also a painter of desert landscapes and the reptiles that live there. Or Joel Hedgpeth, a marine biologist, who also draws sea spiders, plays a harp, and writes poetry. It is rare indeed, when science and the arts merge together, but it is what is needed today, and it occurred in Edith Purer as she was one of those rare individuals of California History during the Depression Era of the 1930s.

Books, Dissertations, and Articles Published by Edith Abigail Purer
1921. Ecology of Douglas Fir. 117 pages University of Chicago, Masters Thesis

1933. Studies of Certain Dune Plants of Southern California. 207p. USC Ph.D Dissertatin

1934. Foliar Differences in Eight Dune and Chaparral Species. In: Ecology 15: 197-203

1935. Influence of Temperature Changes on the Water Content of Salix and Helianthus. In: Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Sciences 44: 45-46

1936. Studies of Certain Coastal Sand Dune Plants of Southern California. In: Ecological Monographs 6: 1-87

1936. Growth Behavior in Convolvulus soldanella. In: Ecology 17: 541-550

1936. Plants of Silver Strand Beach State Park, San Diego County, California. A Visitor's Handbook.

1939. Ecological Study of Vernal Pools, San Diego County. In: Ecology 20: 217-229.

1942. Plant Ecology of the Coastal Salt Marshlands of San Diego County. In Ecological Monographs 12: 82-111.

1942. Anatomy and Ecology of Ammophila arenaria. In: Madrono 6: 80-87

Letters by Edith Purer to Harvard University
1933 to 1938. Twenty-one letters to the Botany Deparment at Harvard University.

Draft Article on Edith Purer by Robert Roy van de Hoek, 2001
2001. Edith Abigail Purer, Ph.D in 1933 from USC: Scientist, Teacher, Author, Artist, and California's First Woman Professional Ecologist in 1930s Depression Era.

Edith Abigail Purer 1920s Landscape Painting of Palm Desert:
Anza Borrego Desert State Park?

Edith Purer Painting