Dr. Marian Pettibone Discovered and Described New Forms of Oceanic Life 

June 26, 2024
Marian Pettibone with short grey hair and glasses sits at a lab bench in front of a microscope. There are files and specimen bottle on shelves behind her.

Dr. Marian Pettibone working in her Lab in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the National Museum of Natural History in 1976. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Department of Invertebrate Zoology. 

In 1948, Dr. Marian Pettibone published a scientific paper naming two new marine segmented worm species. These were the first of 172 species that she would describe in her lifetime. A little over a decade later, she accepted one of the most sought-after scientific positions in the country: curator at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, DC. Just as Pettibone’s name is forever linked to the worms she studied, her history is intertwined with the centuries-long fight for the recognition of women in science. 

Pettibone’s success was born of the groundwork laid by her female predecessors, 1960’s government-funded scientific expansion, and her mastery of a unique group of aquatic animals known as polychaetes. 

Making History   

Black and white photograph of one woman and thirteen men in formal attire standing in three rows on the white front steps of the National Museum of Natural History.

Dr. Marian Pettibone stands with her fellow Invertebrate curators on the steps of the National Museum of Natural History in 1965. At that time, she was the sole female curator in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology, a distinction that lasted until 1966 when Dr. Mary Rice also joined the department. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Department of Invertebrate Zoology. 

In 1963, Pettibone broke ground as the first female curator in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology, holding the pioneering role of Curator of Polychaetes. However, women's participation in invertebrate zoology was not uncommon in the decades preceding Pettibone's curatorship. Pettibone followed in the footsteps of researchers like Mary Jane Rathbun and Harriet Richardson, who were behemoths of invertebrate taxonomy at the National Museum of Natural History from 1886-1914. Remarkably, despite Rathbun's recognition as "one of the foremost authorities on crabs in the world" by the New York Times in 1939, she achieved only assistant curator status after 21 years at the museum. Richardson, during her 17-year tenure at the museum, authored over 80 manuscripts on isopods—a prolific output exceeding what most researchers produce in an entire lifetime—all without compensation.  

Even later in the 20th century, accomplished female scientists like Pettibone encountered barriers. For example, they had to enter meetings of the Biological Society of Washington through the back doors of the Cosmos Club, a private DC social club where meetings were hosted, because the Cosmos club excluded women until 1988. 

Pettibone finished her PhD at the University of Washington at a time when post-WWII America began a new relationship with science. After American scientists created advanced technology that led to the microwave and the atom bomb, scientific discoveries were recognized as powerful government assets. This new national outlook on science opened opportunities for women to formally enter fields they had been silently contributing to for decades.  

While opportunity played a role, Pettibone's success was also rooted in her expertise. By the time she became Curator, she had already published 15 scientific articles and a book on East Coast Polychaetes, establishing herself as an authority on these unique invertebrates.  

Rising Through the Ranks 

A young Marian Pettibone with dark hair and a 1940’s style dress smiles at something off-camera. 

Marian Pettibone in 1942, when she transitioned from teaching biology at St. Hellen’s Hall Jr. College to the University of Washington PhD program. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Department of Invertebrate Zoology. 

Born on July 7, 1908, in Spokane Washington, Pettibone spent the formative years of her life in the Pacific Northwest near the invertebrate-rich waters of the Puget Sound. She earned her master’s degree at Oregon State University under the mentorship of Dr. Rosalind Wulzen, a prominent female physiologist of the time.  

Around 1942, Pettibone migrated north to pursue her PhD in zoology at the University of Washington where she cultivated a particular interest in a family known as Polynoidae, a groups of scale worms. Scale worms are the most prolific and diverse marine segmented worms in the ocean, and Pettibone was fiercely determined to classify as many of them as she could. Her doctoral dissertation was a comprehensive study of the scale worms of the Puget Sound and San Juan Archipelago.  

A long, flat organism with light pink and lavender overlapping scales covering its body; many branching, tentacle-like arms peak out from under the scales around the perimeter of its body.

The deep-sea scale worm, Lepidonotopodium fimbriatum, discovered in the hydrothermal rifts off western Mexico and described by Pettibone in 1983. Photo courtesy of Greg Rouse, Scripps Oceanography, UC San Diego. 

Following her PhD, Pettibone held positions as a research associate at the Johns Hopkins University Office of Naval Research and instructor for field courses at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. In 1953, she accepted a faculty position at the University of New Hampshire where she spent the next decade and authored her widely renowned book, Marine Polychaete Worms of the New England Region. She became Curator of Polychaetes for the National Museum of Natural History in 1963.  

An Important Museum Presence 

An aisle between rows of floor to ceiling shelving, dozens deep, holding thousands of glass bottles with polychaete specimen.

The annelid collection originally housed on the 2nd floor of the National Museum of Natural History, now moved to the Museum Support Center in Suitland, MD. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Department of Invertebrate Zoology. 

In 1963, Pettibone moved into her office in the newly built east wing of the museum. She was one of 14 curators in the then Division of Marine Invertebrates.  

Pettibone’s office quickly became crowded with piles of manuscripts. She had her own organization system, often cutting out the important parts of a manuscript and gluing it to a blank page to save space. “‘Curatorial stratigraphy’ is what I call it,” mused Cheryl Bright, a collections specialist at the National Museum of Natural History. “Each curator organized things with a very specific system that made sense to them.” Pettibone’s personal library proved invaluable in the era predating computers when researchers had to wait sometimes months for loaned books and articles they needed for their research. Her library is still heavily in use today.  

Even after federal regulations mandated her retirement at 65 in 1978, Pettibone continued to dedicate over 10 hours a day, seven days a week to the museum. Her publication rate notably surged post-retirement, as she could devote all her time to research rather than her previous museum responsibilities. In the world of those who devote their lives to these unique spineless creatures, Pettibone's personality left an indelible mark. 

A Friend and Colleague  

Patricia Morse and Marian Pettibone smiling in front of a tall stone statue of a sailor holding onto a ship steering wheel. 

Patricia (Trish) Morse (left) and Marian Pettibone (right) at the Gloucester Fishermen’s Memorial in Gloucester, MA. The photo was taken during a cross-country road trip. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Department of Invertebrate Zoology.

Throughout her career, Pettibone supported and inspirated a generation of rising invertebrate zoologists. One such scientist, Trish Morse, met Pettibone in the 1960s as a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire. “Marian really looked after me,” noted Morse, who was profoundly impacted by Pettibone’s guidance and friendship. “She was the first woman I had seen that was a real scientist, because there were no women scientists at my undergraduate college. It was very reassuring to see another female in the field,” Morse recounted.  

Though Pettibone rarely collaborated on her research, she was known to give generously of her time helping other researchers. She edited countless manuscripts for students and colleagues, identified species, offered to pay the cost of publication for fellow researchers, and mailed manuscript copies from her extensive personal polychaete library to others.  

Like many women in scientific fields, Pettibone’s reputation among her colleagues was complicated. Despite her generosity and admirable scientific discoveries, she was criticized as being “prickly” and “opinionated. “My impression of Pettibone is that she was confident in her abilities and was able to maintain her generous spirit through thick skin and a not-easily-ruffled demeanor. I really wish I could have known her,” current Curator of Polychaetes for the National Museum of Natural History, Karen Osborn remarked.  

Today, Pettibone's legacy endures through the thousands of preserved polychaetes marked with her name, many of which represent the first of their species. Pettibone made her mark on the field of invertebrate zoology and is still recognized at one of the foremost experts on scale worms. She is remembered as a beloved friend and colleague and ardent proponent of ocean discovery.   

Further Reading 

By Raven Capone, a media specialist for the Pettibone Legacy Project in the National Museum of Natural History Department of Invertebrate Zoology.