- First woman field naturalist to obtain and prepare her own specimens
- Set a precedent for showing the animals in lifelike poses surrounded by a natural setting
- Was the first to find and identify the Colorado screech owl; in her honor, a Smithsonian ornithologist named the bird for her, Scops asio maxwellae
Just as John James Audubon killed the birds he desired to paint, so did all the 19th century naturalists who were studying animals in their natural habitats. All that was different about Martha Ann Maxwell was that she was a woman.
In a time before powerful binoculars or high-range cameras, the only way to study and understand an animal was by killing it in a way that did the least harm to the body.
Martha Maxwell was born in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, and her grandmother was the person who instilled in her a love for nature. She took Martha on frequent walks in the woods where they would watch for and identify birds, squirrels, and other wildlife.
Martha’s mother remarried after the death of Martha’s father in the late 1830s, and this newly blended family set off for Oregon where the plan was to convert Native Americans to Christianity. To Martha’s sadness, her grandmother died along the way, and the trip was extremely taxing for all. As a result, the family made it only as far as Wisconsin, and they settled in Baraboo.
Marriage and Motherhood
Martha began college at Oberlin in Ohio but money for tuition soon ran out, so she moved back to Baraboo to teach school. She and James Alexander Maxwell, a widower with four children and the owner of the local mill and general store, married in 1853, making Martha an instant mother.