Visible Women

How Twitter solved the mystery of the black woman scientist in an old photo

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Moya Crockett
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People thought that Sheila Minor was ‘support staff’ – but she was so much more. 

Earlier this month, illustrator Candace Andersen was doing research for a children’s book about orcas when she stumbled across an intriguing old photograph. The black and white image was labelled as having been taken at the 1971 International Conference on the Biology of Whales in Virginia, US.

There were 37 scientists in the picture, all of whom were identified in an accompanying caption. All, that is, except the one woman – who was also the only African-American person in the frame.

Not only was the woman’s name unknown, her smiling face was partially obscured by the head of the white marine biologist standing in front of her.

Andersen decided to ask the Twittersphere for help identifying the mysterious woman. “Hey Twitter I’m on a mission,” she wrote in a post on 10 March. “The woman in this photo was an attendee at a 1971 International Conference on Biology of Whales. She is the only woman, & the only one captioned ‘not identified’ in the article I found her in. All the men are named. Can you help me know her?”

“It bothered me for days not knowing who this woman was,” Andersen told CNN. “If she was there, at that conference, she’s got to be important. I need to know her.”

Her tweet quickly went viral, with amateur sleuths, archivists and professional historians suggesting who the woman might be and offering pointers as to where Andersen should look for more clues.

“She’s obviously a woman of colour, she looks black to me,” wrote DN Lee. “I’d lead with this info and that should help with fielding false leads.

“Also, if she is from the US, that might make it easier to ID who she is, since [the] number of BW scis [black women scientists] were so few [at that time].”

Several names were suggested frequently, including Matilene Spencer Berryman, an oceanographer, environmentalist and attorney who died in 2003, and Suzanne Montgomery Contos, the executive secretary who organised the conference.

These leads fell flat, however, when someone pointed out that Berryman would have been in her 50s in 1971 – much older than the woman in the photo looked. Then Contos herself got in touch with Andersen to say that no, it wasn’t her. The search continued. 

Eventually, Dee Allen Link, a Smithsonian research assistant at the National Museum of Natural History’s Marine Mammal programme, spotted the Twitter thread. The Smithsonian had sponsored the conference, and Link wondered if her colleagues might be able to help find the woman. She got in touch with Don Wilson, a curator emeritus of mammals, who identified the woman as Sheila Minor.

Contos had also got in touch with her former boss, G Carleton Ray, who it turned out had actually taken the photo. Ray agreed that the woman was Sheila Minor – but both he and Wilson believed that Minor had been “support staff” at the conference.

This was wrong. In reality, Minor had been a biological specimen analyst at the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1971, and went on to have a 35-year scientific career in the US federal government. She retired in 2006 as a high-level environmental protection specialist.

Once she had a name, Andersen was able to track Minor down on Facebook. She sent her the photo, asking: “Is this you?” Minor replied with a message belying her 71 years, featuring acronyms and emojis. 

In a conversation with CNN, Minor said that she wasn’t aware of the international search to find her until Anderson got in touch over Facebook. She said that she didn’t mind that she hadn’t been identified in the photo, because what mattered was her dedication to her work and the environment.

“It’s no big thing not being named,” she said. “When you know inside yourself, who you are and what you are, does it matter?”

But, she added, there was a part of her that enjoyed the attention. “My other friends have told me, ‘It’s about time the world knew about you.’”

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Main photo shows an African-American scientist researching Legionnaire’s disease in 1979. Image: Getty Images