Science in the Bluegrass – Flowers of Kentucky

Chris Graney

The wildflowers proclaim the Glory of God, and Kentucky’s waterways tell of God’s handiwork.

Wait, that’s not what the Psalmist wrote! Nevertheless, go out to the right places in Kentucky at this time of year, especially along its streams and rivers, and you will see stands of spring wildflowers that are as glorious as the night sky seen far removed from artificial lights.

I learned many things about Kentucky wildflowers from my grandmother, Corinne Schoo (married name Musterman). She learned about wildflowers from the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth — and specifically from Dr. Rose Agnes Greenwell, an SCN. My grandmother studied botany under Sister Rose Agnes, who lived from 1894-1982, at Nazareth College, now Spalding University, in Louisville.

Sister Rose Agnes’s field of research was Kentucky plant life. She wrote a book, “The Flora of Nelson County, Kentucky.” You can still find copies of it online. She wrote it based on the work she did for her doctoral degree, which she earned from Catholic University in 1935 (she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Notre Dame and Marquette).

She was one of several Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Ph.D. scientists of that era at Nazareth College. Among them were chemists Dr. Mary Adeline O’Leary (1881-1980), Dr. Virginia Heines (1896-1983), and Dr. Roderick Juhasz (1898-1990). 

All of them had remarkable stories, but to my mind Sister Mary Adeline, the oldest of these, most of all. She was born in Union County, Ky. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Southern Normal School in Bowling Green in 1905 and entered the SCNs in 1906, professing first vows in 1908 and perpetual vows in 1914. 

She obtained a master’s degree from Creighton University in 1919. She earned her doctorate in chemistry from Fordham University in 1925. She served on the faculty of the department of chemistry at Nazareth-Spalding from 1925 until 1970, at which point she was nearly 90 years of age. She served as head of that department (no longer in existence) until 1961, when she was 80. At that point Sister Virginia, who was then merely 65, took over as head chemist.

Sister Mary Adeline was the first SCN to earn a doctoral degree; the first SCN doctorate was in science. Father Clyde Crews in his 1987 book “An American Holy Land: A History of the Archdiocese of Louisville,” notes that the SCNs produced more than a dozen doctorates between 1925 and 1938, including not only chemistry but biology and mathematics. Sister Virginia’s doctorate in chemistry would not come until 1946. 

By contrast, Father Crews notes, not until the 1950s did a priest in the Archdiocese of Louisville earn a doctorate in a non-theology field. During the mid-to-late 20th century, sisters from the SCNs and other orders were prominent among the officials of the Kentucky Academy of Science and in the papers published in its journal.  

“Science in the Bluegrass” in that time had a very Catholic, and female, influence.

That influence can be seen in my grandmother, a Nazareth graduate who knew wildflowers and passed her enthusiasm for native Kentucky botany on to her children and grandchildren.  

Thanks to her, and to Dr. Rose Agnes Greenwell, SCN, I can tell you that now is a great time to go see impressive displays of local spring wildflowers. Look where there are creeks and hills, like the valleys of the Little Kentucky and Salt Rivers and their tributaries. Look even along the Ohio River — try the hillsides along the Ohio at Charlestown State Park in Indiana, or around Fort Duffield and Bridges to the Past in West Point, or the Buttermilk Falls trail in Brandenburg. 

They, like the heavens, proclaim the Glory of God — but only for a season.

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