A Woman on the Rocks:
The Varied Life and Adventures of Mary-Hill kueffner French '34
A 1934 graduate of the Summit School, Mary-Hill Kueffner French is Summit’s oldest living alumna. She is also a trailblazer in the history of American women in science and engineering. She studied Geology at both Carleton College, where she earned her B.A. and M.A., and Northwestern University, where she earned a Ph.D in Geology. She was a critical figure in the engineering sector of Minnesota’s Iron Range mining industry at a time when women were still rare in college classrooms, let alone the laboratories of major industrial companies. She married the eminent planetary geologist Bevan Meredith French and has served as his research assistant throughout their marriage, proofreading and editing his many published works.
Mrs. French recently penned a wonderful memoir on her career, excerpted in the spring/summer 2016 issue of SPA Magazine and printed in full below. Her senior portrait from Summit School's 1934 yearbook is shown at left.
Curiosity, the Depression, and my parents shaped my life. Mother and Dad were great at satisfying my curiosity. If I had a question, they answered. How were cars made? They took me to the Ford Factory. How did boats rise over rapids to a higher level? We rode a boat through the locks on the Mississippi River. Mother knew about music and gardens. Dad was knowledgeable about birds, trees, bushes, and crops. Mother was a musician and an independent spirit. Dad was a scholar and a lawyer. They had both gone to college, so I expected that I should too. Sarah Converse, our Headmistress at Summit, wanted me to go to Vassar, her college, but I felt that I wouldn’t fit in there. I also wanted to try a coed school; twelve years with girls only was enough! So, when Carleton College offered me a scholarship, I accepted.
Carleton had high scholastic standards, but my education at Summit School made my freshman year a breeze. I was used to three hour exams. I could write a term paper with footnotes and a bibliography. A science course was required. This was no pain for me. I had always liked the science courses I had taken at Summit, and had managed some extra work in chemistry when I finished elementary geometry early and had time to fill. Geology was my college science course, chosen because Lawrence Gould was not only a glamorous Antarctic explorer, but also known as a superb teacher.
I really liked Carleton, but this was the Depression, which meant a constant search for money. Basics like food and clothing came first; second-year college expenses had to be kept as low as possible. My scholarship for tuition would be renewed and Dad handled some legal work for the College. I also helped in the Dean of Women’s office. Even so, I still needed more funding. It would be cheaper to transfer to the University of Minnesota and live at home to save on room and board. When I didn’t register for my sophomore year at Carleton, Dr. Gould called me into his office and asked me why. I explained the problem. He promptly asked if a job as a geology lab instructor would make a difference. I told him that it most certainly would. With that lab teaching experience and the courses I took, I discovered how much geology interested me, and selected it as my major. Rocks had come into my life to stay.
Graduation came, the Depression continued, and jobs were scarce. I could find no work and thought that perhaps a graduate degree would help. Taking some additional courses, doing some experimental work, and writing a thesis earned me a MA at Carleton. At the same time, other work, including teaching a paleontology class helped pay off my remaining debt. I spent a month preparing my first paleontology lecture. When the time came to deliver it, the idea of standing in front of a class and giving that lecture was daunting. I rushed through it in twenty minutes, leaving me with thirty additional minutes to fill. Trembling a bit, I asked if there were any questions. Several of my students were older than I, and chemistry majors besides --- very impressive. I got questions, but I did manage adequate answers and got through the hour. After that I started to relax and ultimately the class went very well.
There were still no jobs available. I turned to work at a department store as an “interior decorator” who advised customers on color schemes and sold yard goods. I missed geology and scientific discussion, so on a day off, I went to the University of Minnesota, wandering about the geology lab and talking with a professor who happened to be there. He said that Northwestern University had a teaching fellowship open and urged me to apply. If an MA wouldn’t get me a job, perhaps a PhD would, so I sent in my credentials, waited, and hoped. To my happy surprise, the award followed. A $500.00 inheritance covered train fare, clothes, and a rented room. Meals consisted of breakfast juice and rolls that were kept on my windowsill, lunch was a cup of tea and a ten cent peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the other graduate students, and dinner was a splurge of forty cents on whatever I could find at a restaurant. Bread usually came with those meals and I didn’t miss a crumb.
World War Two began. I was recruited by Army Air Force Intelligence and moved to Washington, D.C., to work on bomb target maps at what we called the Map Trap (officially, the U.S. Army Map Service), located in a building in a hillside and mostly underground. A year later, I left to be married. The war ended, three children arrived, and a job change for my husband, Tappan Childs, took us to Hibbing, a northern Minnesota town located in the middle of the Mesabi Iron Range, a mining district that runs east-west across almost all of the state.
We had only been there a year when a fall at home killed Tappan. War years were good for women workers, post-war time was not, and I had been out of the job market for fifteen years. Hibbing was an iron mining town and I had specialized in paleontology, quite different from mining, but I headed out to look for whatever I could find. The best that I was offered was a job at a mining lab, a place where huge machinery was used to test exploration samples sent in by our field geologists, or, more importantly, to work on better ways for the main plant to handle taconite, a local iron ore. Taconite is a hard, dense, fine-grained ore that contains only about one-third iron oxide. This makes it a low-grade ore, and it requires considerable expensive effort to mine it and convert it into a product that is suitable for blast-furnace processing. The direct-shipping ores that were originally mined, had almost twice as much of the desired iron oxide and needed almost no treatment on their way to the blast furnace. However, the overwhelming advantage of taconite was its great abundance; the more profitable direct-shipping ores had been almost all used up.
All this geology and engineering was completely new to me. I was petrified. Nevertheless, I had three children to support. I had always expected my husband to take care of us. I had the same amount of education as he and felt I was just as smart, so I should be able to do as well. “I have successfully handled my past work”, I said to the manager who interviewed me. “Give me a six month trial. If then you are satisfied, we will continue together. Otherwise, farewell and no hard feelings.” And salary? I had carefully worked out the amount necessary to feed, clothe, and house the four of us, which proved so modest a figure that I was given slightly more. It was 1957 and only men worked in the mines, main processing plant, and laboratory. In fact, I believe I was the first woman in the United States employed by the mining industry.
Initially I was viewed skeptically. When I was sent to a meeting at the plant, the manager there phoned my boss and said “I’ve never had a woman here before. How should I treat her?” “Just as you would treat anyone else”, was the reply. By that time I had gotten to know and become friends with all the men at the lab. The men in the shop loved to tell me dirty jokes, which I rarely understood, but I laughed at what I hoped were the right places, and they were delighted. I liked my work, becoming more competent at assessing the necessary testing to request for exploration samples that came into the lab from our field geologists and then working on best methods to treat the taconite --- everything from blasting to crushing, grinding, concentrating, and then pelletizing that fine-powdered concentrate into a solid product that could be fed into blast furnaces. Only a few basic steps had been developed earlier, mostly at the University of Minnesota mining lab, so the field was open to new ideas. Mine were accepted and tried out, along with the others.
Every year I asked for a raise, and every year I got one, probably because my boss felt it was deserved and also he knew that I was being approached by other companies. Initially, I tried to be unobtrusive and blend in with the engineers. Then I realized that I was unique and should take advantage of that, so I began wearing a red dress to professional meetings. I came to know other geologists and believed we should have our own professional group, so I started Geologists of Northern Minnesota, soon including all of the Minnesota Iron Range geologists and holding regular meetings with interesting speakers and topics.
My most rewarding experience was being included on the program of the annual meeting of AIME (American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers) in New York. A paper I wrote was presented by our company’s head of research who shared the byline with me, and later it became a chapter in the two-volume book Blast Furnace: Theory and Practice. I was asked to be the book editor, but my boss discouraged me, saying the job would never end. Now that I have done considerable editing I know how right he was.
The battle to turn taconite into iron ore was very important to Hibbing and the other Mesabi Range towns as well as to the mining companies. The successful use of taconite meant increased employment after years of decline as the high-grade ore had run out. The state tax laws were based on the higher grade ores, which made mining taconite economically difficult, due to its low grade and high processing costs. Seeing the problem, legislation was introduced to reduce the tax on iron when it came from taconite; voters state-wide needed information [on the taconite amendment].
I had always had an interest in government, and I was a longtime member, and sometime president, of the local League of Women Voters chapters. When we lived in St. Paul I had been a party precinct chairman and later a delegate to the state convention. My interest continued when we moved to Hibbing, and I was asked to run for state representative. Knowing that I had insufficient time for all the campaigning necessary, I declined, but working for the taconite amendment seemed possible. Consequently, I and a friend named Liz visited a number of towns across the state, giving chalk-talks. While I explained the amendment, Liz drew pictures on a large board to illustrate the information. I don’t know how many people we personally convinced, but we worked hard, met a lot of ordinary voters, and had the satisfaction of seeing the amendment pass.
Recognition for that and my other work over the years came when the Governor appointed me to the Minnesota Commission on Women. Later our congressman sent me a “Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition of Outstanding and Invaluable Service to the Community." An accompanying letter spoke of what he called “your exceptional work on developing the pelletizing process of taconite and your contributions to the iron ore industry”.
In time I married again, Bevan French, a fellow geologist. I had really enjoyed my mining company career, but now I looked forward to being a full-time mother and wife. Bevan’s work at NASA took him from research to executive positions, but research on the effects of meteorite impacts on the Earth was his real love. His career involved a lot of fascinating travel and resulted in many books and published papers, all of which he wanted me to edit. I enjoyed our discussions about his work and I readily agreed to edit, providing that he would accept my suggestions and criticisms. He not only agreed, but saw to it that I was credited for my contributions.
We both like to travel, as did my parents. In 1965 I had a four-week trip, half spent in Ethiopia, the guest of my old friend, Sheldon Vance, chargé d’affaires there at the time. The State Department, knowing of my trip, asked me to be a “Voluntary Leader” for their newly established “People to People” program. I met two distinguished woman lawyers when I stopped in Athens, and in Nairobi there was tea and interesting discussion with several outstanding Kenyan women and another who came over from Uganda.
When I got to Addis Ababa there was a guide who took me to visit the nearby steel mill and to meet all the government ministers. I was also interviewed by the two local TV stations. With Sheldon and his wife Jean, I met the Emperor sitting in his circle to view the annual Maskal Day parade. This day celebrated both the end of Ethiopia’s rainy season and the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena more than 1600 years earlier. The parade began with men carrying lighted torches and singing the Maskal song These were followed by a float showing St. Helena praying and lighting a fire. Next came one with a rising smoke, indicating the location of the Cross, then one with men digging with picks and shovels, while on the next float the Cross rose triumphant. The royal lion rode on the last float, sitting there rather passively and declining to roar.
Shortly after I left I was offered a position to direct mining research in Ethiopia. It would be a two-year contract with no assurance of continuation--too risky for my family--so I passed it up. With Bevan there was a summer in Canada for his impact-crater research, three visits to Vienna for a semester each while Bevan gave a graduate course at the University of Vienna, and a sabbatical year in 1981-1982 doing field research in South Africa. Our 1984 trip to China lasted a month and included a voyage down the Yangtze on a small ship, standard transportation for the Chinese, and grandly christened “The East is Red, #47”. There was a little dining room where we ate, but most of the Chinese were cooking their food on the floors of the lower decks.
Our sabbatical year in South Africa was interesting and enjoyable, and we learned a lot about many things. We bought a car and drove out into the field together. While Bevan was asking the farmers for permission to collect rock samples on their properties, I struggled to talk with their wives with my hastily-learned scraps of Afrikaans. The men spoke English, but many of the women had been forbidden to learn it, they told me, because of what their families had suffered from the scorched-earth policies of the British during the two Boer Wars. Besides hunting for rocks, there were a lot of opportunities to see the birds and animals, special sights being a field full of dancing cranes, a troop of gazelles humping across the savanna, a herd of zebras converging on a water hole at sunset, several giraffes pushing their heads above the trees to look curiously at us as we ate a picnic lunch, an elephant coming down to the river to drink as we passed in a boat, and, of course, the game parks, where all these sightings seemed to happen at once.
At home and abroad, boat trips have been favorites with us. Through the Grand Canyon on an inflated raft (locally known as a “baloney boat”), down the Ohio River on a vintage steamboat, a canal boat in England, and down the Volga on a Russian cruise ship. A ship was our method of choice to explore the eastern Mediterranean. A special treat was a month-long transit voyage from Singapore to Athens with stops all along the way. The stop at the north end of the Red Sea gave us a chance to go inland, visiting St. Catherine’s Monastery with its very extensive library and the legendary Burning Bush still growing there. Then, on donkeys, we went down to Petra, the ancient city with its buildings carved out of the rock. Another lengthy stop let us visit Cairo and continue south to explore the Sphinx, pyramids, and all the other wonderful remains from the ancient Egyptians.
It was not only the things we saw, but also the people we met who interested me--what they were like, how they differed from each other, but still had many similarities. Shortly after I moved to Washington, a friend suggested I join “Welcome-to-Washington”, a small organization started by two ambassadors’ wives to help foreigners with postings here to get to know the city, see what Americans are like, and to find the membership (always half Americans) a ready source for friends. From my own experience overseas I could understand the need for this and was glad to do my bit to help. In addition to the activities of this group, I enjoyed a weekly game of duplicate bridge, and entertainment for both of us came in the form of concerts, occasional plays, dinners with friends, and programs at the Cosmos Club, an old Washington group of recognized professionals. Bevan and I both belong to GSW (Geological Society of Washington). One year Bevan served as Treasurer and I was the Assistant Treasurer. Later I was made a board member.
It’s hard to cram all the experiences of my long life into one article, but I have tried to pick the more memorable ones, and I have relished and enjoyed them all. There were roadblocks along the way, but these had all been managed. Initially, scholarships, and then jobs, helped supply the needed money and even left plenty of time for dating. The slow acceptance as a woman in the mining world was solved by competence and the friends I made, from workmen to superintendents. I never had a mentor to groom me for the next job, but bits of good advice came from a number of people. I was never promoted to a higher level, but my responsibilities increased greatly, as did my salary and the respect given me. It has been a very happy and satisfactory life!