Cornelia Clapp

The first person to arrive at the MBL, Cornelia Clapp was an independent investigator, an Embryology Course instructor, first librarian, and first woman elected as an MBL Trustee.

Cornelia Clapp in 1934 at her desk

Clapp was also the first woman in the US to receive a PhD in biology (in 1889 from Syracuse University) and the second (in 1896 from the new University of Chicago). Her dissertation director at Chicago was Charles Otis Whitman, and her research focused on toadfish development. Her dissertation carefully described the previously ignored sense organs called the lateral line sensory system.

Clapp Dissertation "The Lateral Line System" in 1899 HoverTouch to magnify
MBL Rare Books Collection

Though few professional opportunities existed for women, Mount Holyoke College gave Clapp a home throughout her career. She started there as an undergraduate, then returned to teach physical education while also helping organize the Department of Zoology. Mount Holyoke named her Professor of Zoology in 1904, and she shared her enthusiasm for studying marine organisms with advanced microscopical techniques. Mount Holyoke’s Clapp Laboratory continues to introduce generations of young women to the life sciences.

A toadfish on a beach HoverTouch to magnify
MBL Trustees c. 1933 HoverTouch to magnify
MBL Trustees c. 1933

In 2021, the MBL named its main lecture hall the Cornelia Clapp Auditorium to acknowledge her commitment to teaching, research, and the MBL.

1. Still Image: "Cornelia Clapp", 2012-06-11,

2. Clapp, Cornelia. The Lateral Line System of Batrachus tau. Boston: Ginn & Company Publishers, 1899.

3. Wikimedia Commons contributors, "File:Bocon toadfish.jpg," Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, (accessed October 10, 2021).

4. Still Image: "Cornelia Clapp and the MBL Trustees on the steps of the Lillie Building", 7/9/2015,