Barring sexism prevalent at the time (something with which we are still dealing today too), Ruth Sawtell Wallis might never have written any mysteries at all, however. The future crime writer was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, the daughter of Grace Quimby and Joseph Sawtell, owner of a haberdashery and a descendant of Thomas Cogswell, a figure of some note in the world of 18th century American politics, when he was, during the Revolution, a commander at the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill and the Continental Army's chief wagon master, and, after the conflict, Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Court of Common Pleas and an Anti-Federalist pamphleteer.
|Ruth Sawtell in 1923|
Awarded a Radcliffe Traveling Fellowship in Science, Sawtell went to Europe, where she did research work in France, Germany and England.
With her colleague Ida Treat, she excavated Azilian culture graves at the village of Montardit in the French Pyrenees, with Treat publishing both a scholarly account of her findings and a popular one, Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees (1927).
On returning to the US in 1926, Sawtell transferred to Columbia University, where she worked as research assistant for Franz Boas, chair of the Anthropology Department there and often dubbed the "Father of American Anthropology." One of her jobs with Boas was to take measurements of Sicilian heritage families in New York, which partly explained her hiring it seems, since, as she told friends, "Sicilian men in 1926 would never have allowed a male researcher to measure their wives." (With all the groping scandals getting reported these days, perhaps it might not have been Sicilian men alone who might have been concerned!)
Between 1926 to 1930 Ruth Sawtell worked as a physical anthropologist in New York City for the Bureau of Educational Experiments (now the Bank Street College of Education), a progressive institution founded by a trio of women which operated a demonstration nursery school. Her work there served as the basis of her doctoral thesis, which she successfully submitted in 1929 at Harvard University.
With her PhD in hand, Sawtell in 1930 became a charter member--one of only two women to do so--of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the University of Iowa hired her as an assistant professor of anthropology. The next year she published an academic monograph, How Children Grow (1931) and she wed the distinguished cultural anthropologist Wilson Dallam Wallis, a widower nine years her senior with two children, moving with him to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he was a professor of sociology.
Ruth Sawtell Wallis, as she was now known, took a position as an assistant professor of sociology at Hamline University in adjacent St. Paul. She was, however, terminated at Hamline in 1935, in her own belief because of "envy over the dual incomes" that she and her husband received "in the midst of the Depression." (Even my mother, some three decades later, recalls hearing the same thing from people about her teaching employment prospects after her marriage to a university professor.)
During the rest of the 1930s, Ruth Sawtell Wallis was successively employed with Federal Works Progress Administration and US Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Home Economics. During the Second World War she served as a labor department analyst for the War Manpower Commission and additionally she began writing detective novels: like other women who had had promising career paths closed to them on account of cultural biases prevalent at the times, she sought her fortune in crime fiction.
More on this and her accomplished crime novel Blood from a Stone, coming soon! See my earlier review of her mystery No Bones About It here.
Source for much of this post: Patricia Case, "Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978)," Women Anthropologists: Selected Biographies, edited by Ute Gacs, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre, Ruth Weinberg (University of Illinois Press, 1988).