Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Emily Warren Roebling, the Woman Who Helped Build the Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By all accounts, Emily Roebling had an exceptional mind. Born Emily Warren on September 23, 1843, in Cold Spring, New York, she graduated with top honors from the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C., where she excelled in science and algebra. But in the mid-19th century, a woman entering those fields was almost unheard of—the more acceptable path for her would have been settling into the standard life of raising children in the tiny Hudson Valley community where she was born. Thankfully for the sake of New York City's iconic skyline, Emily was anything but standard.

The Warren family had been part of the Cold Spring community for generations. Its most famous member was Emily's brother, who found a place in history books as General Gouverneur Warren, a prominent Civil War figure who also helped create some of the best maps of the land west of the Mississippi River for the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

It was while Emily was visiting her brother during the war that she met Washington Roebling. The son of John Roebling—an engineer responsible for a number of prominent suspension bridges in Niagara Falls, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh—Washington himself was a civil engineer serving underneath Gouverneur at the time. He and Emily soon began a feverish courtship that ended with their marriage in January 1865, less than a year after they first met, and just months before the war's end.

It was only a few years later that John Roebling took on the biggest job of his career: the creation of a suspension bridge that would unite Brooklyn and Manhattan. Originally called the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, the project would eventually just be known as the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the great engineering marvels of the late 19th century.

Washington and Emily were involved in the project from the start. In 1867, John Roebling sent the young couple to Europe so Washington could study the techniques used on some of the most notable bridges in France, England, and Germany, including the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, and the Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales.

Most importantly, Washington was to study the caisson technique, which had originated in Europe decades earlier. These pressurized chambers were the future of bridge construction—built so that water could be kept out of them to provide a dry working environment, they gave engineers the ability to build underwater on sites that were once totally inaccessible.

Sadly, John Roebling's work on the Brooklyn Bridge would be short-lived: An injury sustained while scouting construction locations in 1869 proved fatal, leaving the project in Washington's hands. Luckily, the time spent in Europe had prepared him well.

As with any construction process, Washington knew he had to focus on the foundations—the caissons, which would become the base of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge towers. These took the form of mammoth, bottomless boxes of wood and iron that were piled with large granite blocks to sink them through the muddy ground toward bedrock. As the caissons slowly sunk to their destination, workers entered through a shaft at the top and excavated the riverbed until they hit stable ground. Each caisson was pumped full of compressed air to allow the workers to remove the mud and gravel, and when it settled into its final location, it was filled with concrete. The men who built the caissons worked around the clock in hideous conditions, with most of them earning around $2 a day.

In 1872, as construction on the bridge was well underway, tragedy again struck the Roebling family. Many of the men working in the highly pressurized caissons were becoming cripplingly ill, and even dying, due to an ailment that wasn't yet understood. It was known as "caisson disease," soon to be called "the bends," a potentially deadly reaction to changes in pressure. This was a time before the principles of decompression were fully fleshed out, and Washington's penchant for appearing deep underground with his workers—sometimes staying inside for longer than a typical shift—led him to come down with the affliction. It eventually induced cramps, hindered his eyesight, and threw off his equilibrium, leaving him in near-constant pain. Though he would live for another 50 years, he would never recover (although the extent to which the bends were to blame for all of his troubles is debated).

Portrait of Washington Roebling
Washington Roebling
Théobald Chartran, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Washington stayed on the project, but during the rest of the construction he observed progress through a telescope from his bedroom window on Brooklyn's Columbia Street. To communicate orders to his assistant engineers, Emily would write down detailed notes from her husband and give them to the various departments. She was his eyes and ears at the site, while doubling as nurse and confidant.

Soon enough, there were rumblings that Emily was doing much more than simply parroting information given by her husband. She was gaining a keen understanding of the engineering of the bridge and was able to speak to Roebling's assistant engineers on their level. As historian David McCullough says in his book The Great Bridge, "In truth she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved. She had a quick and retentive mind, a natural gift for mathematics, and she had been a diligent student during the long years he had been incapacitated."

McCullough stresses that Emily never took over for Washington as the bridge's chief engineer, but the rumors at the time said otherwise [PDF]. A New York Times article published in 1883 quoted a source close to the family as saying, "Since her husband's unfortunate illness, Mrs. Roebling has filled his position as chief in engineering staff."

While the news about a woman at the helm of one of the most significant construction projects in New York history must have sold newspapers, according to McCullough, it also led to whisperings about the mental condition of her husband. Washington's illness was still a mystery to most, and it led to speculation he'd given Emily a larger role in the construction only because he was losing his mind. But while people on the outside were worrying, those closest to the project knew Emily's worth was immeasurable, despite not having the formal education of her husband or father-in-law. She was even becoming an "idolized figure" among assistant engineers, McCullough writes.

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge
Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge
George Bradford Brainerd, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Histories of the Brooklyn Bridge are filled with anecdotes highlighting the importance of Emily during this time. One of the most well-known took place when representatives of a steel mill appeared on the Roeblings' doorstep to ask Washington a question about how a part of the superstructure should be formed. Only they didn't get to see Washington; instead, Emily invited them inside and sketched out the specs herself. Her quick decision-making had, according to the Times, "cleared away difficulties that had for weeks been puzzling their brains."

But Emily's job stretched far beyond her burgeoning engineering know-how. She was heavily involved in the politics of the bridge, at one point successfully lobbying for her husband when the bridge company was to vote on his ouster due to absence. And when rumors emerged that one contractor was trying to renegotiate their contract, the company sent a letter of reassurance addressed to Emily Roebling, not Washington.

For all her work on the bridge, Emily was still a doting wife, and stayed vigilant about protecting her husband's health and privacy. She made sure that visitors were rare, including Washington's own assistant engineers, and that no interviews were conducted from the bed where he was so vulnerable.

After 14 years of construction, the Brooklyn Bridge was nearly ready for its unveiling in May 1883. A week and a half before the official opening, the engineers wanted to test the new structure with an inaugural carriage ride. Everyone agreed the first rider to cross the bridge should be Emily—and she did so with a rooster on her lap, a symbol of victory, as the workers and other onlookers removed their hats and cheered her on.

At the official unveiling ceremonies on May 24, hundreds of thousands of people rushed over to celebrate the completion of the bridge that would forever alter Manhattan and Brooklyn, two separate cities on the path to becoming one. President Chester A. Arthur was among the guests, as was the governor of New York (and future president) Grover Cleveland. There was music and fireworks so dazzling they could be seen in New Jersey. Though Emily stayed for a few of the speeches, she enjoyed much of the opening day at the home her husband had been confined to for years.

It's possible that Washington Roebling never stepped foot on the bridge that he dedicated his life to. It was the bridge that killed his father and left him in constant pain, but that also helped Emily Roebling contribute to a world of engineering otherwise inaccessible to her. Today, her contributions are far from forgotten, and, along with her husband and father-in-law, she is immortalized on a plaque on the Brooklyn-side tower, which reads:

THE BUILDERS OF THE BRIDGE
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF
EMILY WARREN ROEBLING
1843 - 1903
WHOSE FAITH AND COURAGE HELPED HER STRICKEN HUSBAND
COL. WASHINGTON A. ROEBLING, C.E.
1837 - 1926
COMPLETE THE CONSTRUCTION OF THIS BRIDGE
FROM THE PLANS OF HIS FATHER
JOHN A. ROEBLING, C.E.
1805 - 1869
WHO GAVE HIS LIFE TO THE BRIDGE

“BACK OF EVERY GREAT WORK WE CAN FIND
THE SELF-SACRIFICING DEVOTION OF A WOMAN"

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March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
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Retrobituaries
Virginia Apgar, the Woman Whose Name Saves Newborns
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain

How important is Dr. Virginia Apgar to the modern practice of obstetrics? Here is the way the National Library of Medicine’s website puts it: “[E]very baby born in a modern hospital anywhere in the world is looked at first through the eyes of Dr. Virginia Apgar.”

Apgar created a quick and reliable way to determine the health of a newborn baby, an examination that is usually referred to today as a baby’s Apgar test. Before her test, invented in 1952, there was no objective way to determine the health of a newborn, and babies were given little medical attention immediately after birth. Problems often escaped notice until they became critical.

To determine an Apgar score, a nurse, midwife, or physician examines the baby for five criteria—skin color, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone, and breathing—at both one minute and five minutes after birth (and sometimes in further follow-up tests). Each criterion is given zero, one, or two points. A score over seven is considered normal. A score below three is seriously low. Babies often have lower scores at one minute after birth, but by five minutes have perked up and score in the normal range.

Because a common mnemonic for the criteria uses the letters APGAR (appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration) to create a “backronym,” or retrofitted acronym, many people do not realize Apgar is an eponym—named after a person. Apgar herself was often amused when people were surprised to find she was a real individual.

But in person, Virginia Apgar was hard to forget. She was a pioneer in several fields of medicine, helping to establish anesthesiology as a medical specialty, working to study and improve obstetrical anesthesia, and advancing the study of birth defects. She helped organize and administer the first Division of Anesthesia at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, her alma mater, and became the first woman to be a full professor there.

As a teacher of medicine, Apgar was known for her uninhibited sense of humor and could talk about anything without embarrassment. Because her own tailbone was at an odd angle, she would have medical students feel for it to help them learn how to administer spinal anesthetics. She always traveled with a resuscitation kit that included a penknife and an endotracheal tube (a plastic tube inserted into the windpipe to ventilate the lungs). "Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me!" she reportedly declared.

In the late 1950s, after Apgar had already made a name for herself with her work in anesthesiology and the creation of the Apgar score, she turned her attention to the study and prevention of birth defects. She was asked to join what was then the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis-March of Dimes (now simply the March of Dimes), which started researching and advocating for those with birth defects after it met its original goal of creating a vaccine against polio. As a director and later vice president at the March of Dimes, Apgar championed research that showed how factors such as infectious diseases, radiation exposure, substance abuse, and chemical exposure could cause birth defects. In her years with the organization, she also traveled the country speaking and calling attention to the issue of birth defects.

Outside of medicine, Apgar was a gardener, fly fisherman, and took flying lessons. Throughout her life, she was an excellent amateur violinist who often played in chamber ensembles. She even learned to make stringed instruments, including violins, a viola, and a cello.

In fact, her work as an amateur luthier even led her to a short career as a thief. In 1957, a musician friend noticed that a maple shelf in a phone booth at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center would make an excellent back for a viola. The friend and Apgar set out to take the shelf at night and replace it with another piece of wood, which they managed to stain to just the right color. But the piece they brought was slightly too long, and needed to be shortened. While her friend went into a nearby ladies’ room to do the sawing, Apgar guarded the door. The piece became the back of Apgar’s viola, and was one of four instruments she handcrafted that were played by pediatricians at a 1994 ceremony to honor a commemorative U.S. stamp with Apgar’s image. (The instruments were later donated to Columbia, where they can still be rented.)

Virginia Apgar died of liver disease at the age of 65 in 1974, but her name lives on around the world—even though many don’t know it—in the life-saving score she designed for infants.

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Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock
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Retrobituaries
Laura de Force Gordon, Pioneering Newspaper Publisher, Lawyer, and Suffragist
Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock
Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock

Laura de Force Gordon's life was filled with firsts. A dedicated writer and reporter, she was the first woman to publish a daily newspaper in the United States. She was also one of the nation's first female attorneys—although it took several determined campaigns for her to earn the right to practice. She's also credited with launching the women’s suffrage movement in California. Yet her legacy is not without controversy, and an intriguing discovery long after her death has led to speculation about her personal life.

Born Laura de Force in Erie County, Pennsylvania, on August 17, 1838, she was a Spiritualist before she was a feminist. The 19th century religious movement focused on communication with spirits and ghosts of the deceased, and de Force gained a following as a trance speaker—someone who could channel a spirit. She spent her early adulthood traveling through her native Pennsylvania and New England, giving lectures on a variety of topics including Spiritualism, temperance, and women’s suffrage.

She met her husband, Dr. Charles H. Gordon, while working as a trance speaker, and the couple decided to move to Nevada, and then California, in the late 1860s. She continued to give lectures on Spiritualism, the abolition of alcohol, and women’s rights along the way, although not without some pushback: Occasionally, men in the audience would stand up and try to debate her, but “she would turn it on them every time and the audience would roar,” according to the Lodi Historian.

Like a number of women—including Victoria Woodhull, often credited as the first woman to run for president of the United States—Gordon used her platform as a trance speaker and medium as a launching pad for a career as a women’s rights campaigner. She gave California’s first recorded speech on women and the vote in San Francisco in 1868, then helped found the California Woman’s Suffrage Society in 1870, often speaking before the state legislature on the society’s behalf. She would later serve as its president from 1884 to 1894.

Her career as a newspaperwoman began as a side effect of a failed campaign for a state senate seat. In 1871, just a year after she settled in California, the Independent Party of San Joaquin nominated her as their candidate. Women couldn’t yet vote, making a win highly unlikely, but the run was meant to make a point. Yet the male-dominated newspapers of the region didn’t take her campaign—or her work for women’s rights—seriously. Most just ignored it.

Gordon's solution was to purchase her own newspaper, the Stockton Leader. Her career as a newspaperwoman didn't end there: She converted the Stockton Leader to a daily in 1874 (in the process becoming the first woman to publish a daily paper in the nation); edited the Daily Democrat in Oakland, California; helped her sister Gertie found a weekly newspaper of her own; and served as a regular contributor to several California newspapers as well as the New Northwest of Portland, Oregon. Her status as a reporter and publisher granted her entry into a number of venues that would otherwise be closed to her as a woman, such as the State Assembly, where she had a press desk as a correspondent for the Sacramento Bee.

"LADY LAWYERS"

But Gordon wasn’t content to remain a journalist. She wanted a career in the courtroom. In order to make that happen, though, a number of things needed to change—starting with a California law that barred anyone but white males from being admitted to the state bar. Gordon teamed up with fellow writer and activist Clara Shortridge Foltz, and the pair worked together with state lawmakers to change the rule. Their work culminated in the Woman Lawyer’s Bill in March 1878, which went beyond its name to allow admission of “any citizen or person” to the bar.

That was just the first hurdle Gordon and Foltz had to leap over to begin their law careers. Although they were now technically permitted to work as attorneys, and no specific rule prevented their law training, law schools could still prevent them—in practice, if not in theory—from getting the education they needed for successful careers.

The saga began when Foltz registered to attend classes at Hastings College of the Law, one of the first law schools in California. Her first day was full of disruptions, as the male students imitated her every move as part of a hazing ritual. On the second day, she was blocked from classes by a janitor and had to get a note from the dean before she was allowed in.

On the third day, Gordon joined her friend, and the two vowed to support each other in their attempts to get a legal education. This lasted only a day before the school’s Board of Directors asked them not to return. “There was no written explanation for the exclusion, but Dean Hastings told [Foltz] and Gordon that their presence, particularly their rustling skirts, was bothering the other scholars,” writes Barbara Babcock in her book Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz.

A photo of Laura de Force Gordon
Ralph Lea

The pair decided to fight. They continued to attend lectures until physically barred from the classrooms by their male classmates. Babcock writes that "they came to class one day to find the men blocking their entrance, staring at them in silent hostility."

In February 1879, they took the fight to the courts and the state legislature. Gordon and Foltz devised a single-line amendment to the state constitution, which Gordon sent to her allies at the second California constitutional convention, then in progress at the time. It read, “No person shall, on account of sex, be disqualified from entering upon or pursuing any lawful business, vocation or profession.” It was soon adopted by the convention.

At the same time, with advice from Gordon’s friend David Terry, a legal expert from Stockton, California, each woman filed a lawsuit against the college’s Board of Directors. The lawsuits relied on the fact that the law school was part of the state’s coeducational, taxpayer-funded public university system and should be required to admit the pair under those conditions. Gordon filed in the California Supreme Court, while Foltz filed in the state’s trial court. When the Supreme Court declined to take up the case, Gordon joined Foltz in the trial court.

By many accounts, the pair argued their case eloquently and skillfully. At the end of the trial, even Delos Lake, one of the attorneys representing the law school’s board, was convinced that they would be good attorneys. “If fair ladies were to be lawyers, [I] would rather have them as associates than opponents,” he said—apparently meaning he didn't ever want to be on the other side of the dock from them again. The judge ruled in their favor, as did the California Supreme Court on appeal, and they were admitted to the college.

For both, it was an enormous victory, and they became the first two women admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of California.

Once she obtained admission to the bar, Gordon gave up publishing newspapers to practice law (though she remained active in reporting on suffrage). She was especially known for her murder trial defenses, and was made an honorary member of the Royal Italian Literary Society of Rome after her successful defense of an Italian immigrant facing execution in one particular trial. Legend says the Southern Pacific Railroad gave her a lifetime pass after she did some exceptional legal work for the company. She even faced off against her friend and law school ally Foltz, who worked as a prosecutor, in the trial of confessed murderer George Wheeler—one of the few trials Gordon lost. Six years after being admitted to the California bar, she was admitted to the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming only the second woman in the U.S., after Belva Lockwood of Washington D.C., to gain that qualification.

"A LOVER OF HER OWN SEX"

Around 1880, Gordon suffered a devastating blow in her personal life. She found out that her husband had lied to her for nearly two decades: He had never divorced his first wife, who he had abandoned in Scotland when he traveled to the U.S. When Gordon found out about her husband’s transgressions—supposedly after detectives hired by his first wife tracked him down—she divorced him, referring to herself as a widow for the remainder of her life.

Portrait of Laura de Force Gordon
Congress of Women, Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 1979, more than 70 years after her death, Gordon turned heads again, this time when a 100-year-old time capsule buried in San Francisco’s Washington Square was opened. In it was a copy of a travel book Gordon had written, The Great Geysers of California and How to Reach Them, which she had donated for the time capsule in 1879, around the same time as her divorce. On the book she had written, “If this little book should see the light after its 100 years of entombment, I would like its readers to know that the author was a lover of her own sex and devoted the best years of her life in striving for the political equality and social and moral elevation of women.”

The inscription has inspired debate. Some have interpreted this to be a declaration that she was a lesbian, while others interpret her words as a more platonic statement in favor of women’s rights. Gordon’s life offers few clues; although she never married again after her divorce, there is no surviving evidence that she had any romantic relationships with other women, either.

Gordon was not a perfect champion of rights for all. Like other members of the Democratic Party in the late 1800s, she spoke out against Chinese immigrants to the West Coast, who she said were taking jobs and opportunities from white American citizens. Gordon gave a number of anti-Chinese lectures, and also made comments—including during the lawsuit against Hastings—condemning the idea that Chinese men should be allowed to do anything white women were barred from. The extent to which these attitudes were a matter of personal conviction or political expediency remains a source of debate.

In 1901, Gordon retired to Lodi, but her retirement was short-lived. She went back on the lecture circuit again in 1906, traveling until she caught a cold in Los Angeles. She died on April 5, 1907, after a brief battle with pneumonia, at the age of 68. Women in California gained the right to vote in 1911—just four years after her death.

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