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Earth Notes: Polly Mead Patraw

A woman in a Park Service uniform shows a plant to another woman.
National Park Service
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Ranger-naturalist Polly Mead Patraw, on left, shows a plant to a Grand Canyon visitor in 1931.

Polly Mead Patraw was the first woman to serve as a ranger at Grand Canyon National Park. Hired in 1930, she was only the second female ranger-naturalist in the entire Park Service.

Patraw was studying botany at the University of Chicago when she fell in love with the Grand Canyon on a field trip. For two summers she lived at the North Rim to research its plant life. She camped and hiked alone carrying a plant press, bedroll, and pistol.

After she graduated, Patraw applied to work with the U.S. Forest Service, only to be told that the agency did not hire women. She got a job with Grand Canyon National Park instead. There was no uniform for female rangers. She wore a riding habit at first—an outfit designed for horseback riding—and then adopted the men’s uniform. The park’s superintendent didn’t want her to wear the traditional Stetson, so she used a floppy felt hat like the ones worn by “Harvey Girls.”

Patraw led nature hikes, gave campfire talks, and championed for the Park Service to plant native wildflowers in its landscaping. In 1931 she married assistant superintendent Preston Patraw. It was rare for married women to work at the time, and officially, this ended her brief career as a ranger-naturalist.

But she continued to do botany and science education at the Grand Canyon and other national parks in the Southwest. Patraw is remembered today for her popular book Flowers of the Southwest Mesas and for blazing a trail that many female rangers followed.

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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