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Black and white faded photograph of Gloria Hollister with microscope in laboratory taken in 1931
Gloria Hollister with microscope in laboratory, December 1931. @Wildlife Conservation Society. Reproduced by permission of the WCS Archives.

Diving in the Deep with Gloria Hollister

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This post was written by Claire D’Mura, Reference and Research Specialist in the Library’s Science Section. 

In the 1930s, the public was captivated by oceanographic explorers William Beebe and Otis Barton. Their explorations took these men to depths never before seen by humans, where they saw deep sea creatures, never before witnessed alive and in their natural environments. Recording these dives in real-time, was research scientist Gloria Hollister, whose personal papers are held in the Library of Congress Manuscript collections.

Faded black and white photograph of Gloria Hollister and associate sit inside Bathysphere after 410 ft dive as William Beebe and associate stand by, June 11, 1930.
Gloria Hollister and John Tee-Van sit inside Bathysphere after 410 ft dive as William Beebe and associate stand by, June 11, 1930, Bermuda. Copyright of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Reproduced by permission of WCS Archives

Beebe and Barton descended in a deep-sea submersible, known as the Bathysphere, a steel sphere outfitted with tubes and tethers, and with communication capabilities provided by telephone wire. Hollister was most often the one on the surface-end of the line, transcribing communications on the status of the sphere and Beebe’s visual descriptions of sea life. Both to record observations and demonstrate  the continued wellbeing of the Bathysphere’s occupants, Beebe dictated near constantly. Some of those recorded observations made their way into a Nov/Dec 1930 article “Telephoning to Davy Jones’ Locker, Log of the Bathysphere Dives.” from the Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society:

550 ft: String of jellyfish the whole time, Saw black forms in the distance. 4 are coming nearer.

500 ft: Black fish went by in distance. Puffer 3 inches long. Something went overhead.

490 ft: Violet, and palest green and nothing else.

450 ft: Saw leptocephalus right past hooks. It wound in and out, and was about 6 inches long.

Photograph of Gloria Hollister in an early 20th century diving helmet
Gloria Hollister in a helmet, no date. Photograph from the Gloria Hollister Anable papers, 1916-2003. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In her personal journals, Hollister wrote, “It is the desire of my life, at present, to descend in this ball and see with my eyes and not my imagination. There is no reason why I should not, I am quite independent…” (May 31, 1930, Box 2). Eleven days later, on her 30th birthday, she would get that chance. This first dive was to 410 feet. In the Nov/Dec 1930 Bulletin article, reporting on the dive, Hollister described:

“We watched a school of colorless shrimps pass in the distance and a startled carangid-like fish as he butted savagely against the window and darted away into blue space. It was difficult to believe that these creatures and hundreds of others could exist in this world of strained sunlight, constant cold, and enormous pressure.”

Gloria Hollister would go on to do two more dives, to 1,000 feet in 1932, and 1,208 feet in 1934, establishing ever-deeper records for deepest dive completed by a woman. She was a member of the Society of Women Geographers and, on her final 1934 dive, had the honor of carrying the society’s flag, versions of which had been carried on their travels by contemporaries, Marie Peary Stafford and Amelia Earhart, into the deep.

In addition to diving and transcribing, Hollister studied the delicate bone structures of fish. In doing so, she used a technique of “clearing and staining” the specimen, which she refined, using potassium hydroxide, glycerin and ultraviolet light to render the fish transparent, and Alizarin Red S to stain the skeletons bright red. She published her technique in the journal Zoologica in 1934.

1933 newspaper headline that reads Woman Plumbs Depths of Ocean. Gloria Hollister Walks on Sea Floor, Ignores Sharks.
From the Indianapolis Times, June 15, 1933. Home Edition, Second Edition. From Chronicling America Digital Newspaper

Beebe and Barton’s expeditions captured imaginations across the country. One dive was broadcast by NBC Radio, and stories from the expeditions were published in newspapers, which garnered a degree of celebrity for the researcher-adventurers, including Hollister.

Gloria Hollister was born to a wealthy family in New York City in 1901, the daughter of Dr. Frank Canfield Hollister. In addition to being a researcher, Hollister aspired to be a doctor as well, but the later ambition was met with disapproval from her father. She earned a B.S. in zoology from Connecticut College in 1924, and a M.S. in zoology at Columbia University in 1925. Right after college, she assisted with cancer research at the Rockefeller Institute, until joining the New York Zoological Society’s Department of Tropical Research (DTR) and William Beebe.

From a young age, Hollister had a strong drive for discovery and adventure. In interviews, she recounted tales from her childhood, where she attempted to find out what was at the bottom of the river outside her family’s summer home. First, she tried using a glass tube to breathe. Later, she employed an oil can over her head, in a cruder configuration of the copper helmet she would later use for diving.

Gloria Hollister and Ruth Walker Brooks sitting on a plateau overlooking Kaieteur Falls.
Ruth Walker Brooks (artist) and Gloria Hollister, Kaieteur Falls, Guyana 1936. Photograph from the Gloria Hollister Anable papers, 1916-2003. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In 1936, Hollister would lead her own expedition to Trinidad and Guyana (then British Guiana). Her studies in Trinidad marked a return to the first subject she studied with the DTR, the guacharo bird. Now, a decade later, she noted a much-reduced population, and her group encountered a band of poachers who had just killed six of the birds.

One of the objectives of the expedition was to photograph Kaieteur Falls, the largest single drop waterfall in the world. She hired a pilot to take her and another photographer around the falls and the surrounding area, where they took five and a half hours of aerial footage and observed roughly 40 other uncharted falls. She noted, in a Sept/Oct 1936 Bulletin article:

“Here, two hundred miles inland, the amber-colored Potaro plunges over a jagged cliff, and when it strikes, 741 feet below, the water has become spray, which when it rebounds is a white filmy mist. Kaieteur is five times higher than Niagara and one of the highest and most beautiful waterfalls in the world.”

On this expedition, Hollister and her crew were also among the earliest users of Kodak’s new color slide film, Kodachrome.

Gloria Hollister standing at a podium in 1971.
Gloria Hollister Anable, Chairman, Anable Day at the Gorge, Mianus River Gorge Conservation Committee, Noth Castle, NY, 1971. Photograph from Photograph from the Gloria Hollister Anable papers, 1916-2003. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

At the beginning of the United States official entry to World War II in December of 1941, Hollister left the Department of Tropical Research and turned her attention to opening the first Red Cross blood bank in Brooklyn. She would continue to focus on conservation work, giving lectures and working to protect the forests along New York’s Mianus River, which became the Mianus River Gorge Preserve. The preserve was the Department of the Interior’s first Natural National Landmark, and also the first land purchase deal involving The Nature Conservancy. In 2021, a species of fish was named in her honor, the Polymixia hollisterae.

Throughout her life, Hollister was known for her charisma, whether it was through her frequent lectures on her adventures, as a spokesperson for the American Red Cross, or through conservation advocacy. Her tales of exploration offered a desired escape from the difficulties of the 1930s, and her passion gave voice to endangered public lands. Most of us cannot take grand trips to remote islands or take walks on the sea floor, but Gloria Hollister did, and now we’re the lucky ones who get to read about it.

Black and white faded photograph of Gloria Hollister with microscope in laboratory taken in 1931
Gloria Hollister with microscope in laboratory, December 1931. @Wildlife Conservation Society. Reproduced by permission of the WCS Archives.

Explore more about Gloria Hollister and her work using the list of references below:

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Comments

  1. A true trailblazer and perfect role model for young women!

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