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Celebrating Women’s History Month: Scientist Spotlight

Women’s History Month quiz question (and no “Googling” allowed): Who was Joan Procter?

I didn’t know either until a few months ago when I learned that my colleague, Dr. Patricia Valdez, wrote a children’s book, called “Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor.”  Alfred A Knopf published Patricia’s and her illustrator Felicita Sala’s book a few weeks ago, on March 13, 2018.  Critics have already acclaimed the work: Publisher’s Weekly in a starred review wrote, “Valdez paints a portrait of a unique woman whose love for reptiles developed into a gratifying career.”

So, who was Joan Procter?  She was born in London in 1897 and had a rather unusual childhood.  By age 10 she had developed a fascination for reptiles – she read voraciously about them and kept a pet lizard.  At age 16 she brought a pet crocodile to school.  And when she was ready to graduate high school, she worked for Dr. George Boulenger, a curator at the British Museum.  Intestinal ailments prevented her from going to college, but fortunately Dr. Boulenger recognized her dedication and genius, taking her under his wing.

Procter presented her first scientific paper by age 19 (later published as Procter JB, On the variations of the pit viper Lachesis atria.  Proc Zool Soc London 1918:163-182), and in her early 20s she took over as curator when Dr. Boulenger retired.  Later she became reptile curator at the London Zoo, where she oversaw the building of a new reptile house and conducted internationally recognized scientific work on reptile and amphibian taxonomy.  She developed many innovative veterinary procedures.

Perhaps she is best known for her work with two Komodo Dragons — Sumba and Sumbawa, the first live dragons to come to a European zoo.  She demonstrated that in many respects these “fierce lizards” could be quite gentle; she was famous for taking Sumbawa to tea parties with children, to scientific conferences, and on walks around the zoo, steering him with his tail.

Sadly, Procter died at age 34 of her intestinal ailments.  Shortly before she passed away, the University of Chicago granted her an honorary Doctor of Science.

I thoroughly enjoyed Patricia’s book – and I already know of a number of children and parents in my neighborhood who have too. This book is the first of what may well be a series by Dr. Valdez highlighting the achievements of female scientists. I certainly hope the follow-on books come to fruition. We can all benefit from hearing these stories, and inspiring our children to fulfill their dreams.

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