Fannie R. Gaston was a woman of science. And math. And religion. And art. And suffrage. And temperance. And words. And teaching. She was, well, a lot! Fannie was a complex woman full of contradictions but also proof that none of us are perfectly wrapped packages.
By Sean E. Andres
Training for the Anti-Saloon Army
In the corner of Ohio where it borders West Virginia and Pennsylvania is a small city called East Liverpool. There, on 20 Aug. 1875, druggist and farmer Ephraim Gaston and Dorcas Huston Gaston had a daughter named Fannie. So she’d grown up exposed to science. But also exposed to lots and lots of Christian zeal, apparently. She likely grew up in gender binary roles, where her education was centered around domesticity – including painting, cooking and etiquette.
At some point, the family moved to Athens, Tennessee. And Fannie started at a new university in Harriman, Tennessee – America’s first prohibition city, where the motto was “Prohibition, peace, and prosperity,” as “a live prohibition town of 4,000 inhabitants, where saloons are forever prohibited by title deeds.” The doors to American Temperance University (ATU) opened to learning on 12 Sep. 1893.
The co-ed university’s main goals were “to train every student for leadership among the oncoming forces of the anti-saloon armies,” as told in the Chattanooga Daily Times, 12 Nov. 1893. They taught government and politics courses to be able to equip their graduates with the tools to change and argue policy. Graduates entered Congress and became judges. The school held absolutely no separation of church and state. Sounds…fun.
In the first semester, 160 students were enrolled, with seven being seniors. In the second semester, 200 were enrolled. Aside from government and politics, Fannie was educated in oration – all content centered by temperance. When Fannie graduated in 1895, she was one of twelve students, and one of four women, in her class. Fannie had been known by her classmates for her sense of humor. She brought the house down when she performed Elizabeth T. Corbett’s poem “The Inventor’s Wife” at the Spensonian Literary Society event her senior year.
That fall, Fannie started as a teacher at Walnut Hills Public High School in Harriman. During this time, she got in a little hot water. In March 1896, a student in one of her classes cursed, and she whipped them in punishment. She was arrested and discharged. A month later, she was under consideration for indictment. However, it seems these efforts went nowhere, and she continued working there for another year until her alma mater, the American Temperance University, hired her to teach English and gymnastics. She was there for three years before she landed at Grant University in Knoxville, teaching for four years.* During her time in Tennessee as a young woman, she was active in Chattanooga and Knoxville high society and often hung around other professors. And every break, she’d return to her parents’ in Athens.
Calculating the skies
Then in 1905, Fannie began work as the chair of the math department for Lincoln Memorial College in the Cumberland Gap, a position she held for at least three years. She then briefly left academia to work as a computer for engineers, but she did return to academia, working as assistant professor of math at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Unable to return to the ATU, as it closed in 1908, she moved back to her home state of Ohio with her parents on Observatory Ave in March 1912 for a position at the first public one in the US.
Fannie was hired as an assistant at the Cincinnati Observatory under the direction of James Gildersleeve Porter. The same year she painted the picturesque Hannaford building we see today, she also helped in planning the Mitchel building opening. At the opening celebration of the Mitchel building in October of 1912, the chairmen of the Observatory committee, Alfred K. Knippert, thanked Porter, Yowell, Smith and Fannie. “They have rendered faithful and valuable services to the science of astronomy and to the University of Cincinnati,” he said. In 1913, she started her graduate program in physics at UC. Around the same time, she and her parents moved in with the Observatory’s second astronomer Elliott Smith and his family (later twice the director). The following year, she was elected to the American Astronomical Society.
While assistant at the Observatory, Fannie participated in Bible studies. Now, normally, this isn’t really an issue. After all, the directors, up through Dr. Herget, were all devout Christians. To Ormsby Mitchel, looking at the night sky was getting closer to God. But keep this bit in your back pocket. During her tenure at the Observatory, in 1918, a nova, or new star, appeared in the constellation of Aquilla. She most definitely observed this incredible birth of a star at the very location in Mt. Lookout.
Fannie also took a long-term substitution job for Valeska Danzinger at Hughes High School, where most of the staff at the Observatory graduated, and taught astronomy at UC. She listed teaching high as her profession in the 1920 census, which was documented in January. She likely worked at the Observatory at night because she still listed herself as working there in the directories through and after this period of time.
Serving the Lord
After her father died in 1919, Fannie quit the Observatory in June 1920 and moved with her mother back to East Liverpool, where she was born.
In 1925, after John Thomas Scopes violated Tennessee’s anti-evolution law by teaching a theory contrary to the Biblical story of the creation of man, it created a national debate. Fannie, with that American Temperance University education embedded in her head, took to publishing an article on the front page of her hometown’s paper, arguing to keep Christianity in scientific textbooks.
She wrote about how before WWI, it was usual for American students to take post-graduate rationalist courses in Germany, a country “preparing her people to consider treaties as ‘scraps of paper’ and preparing them for world conquest. As blame was being pointed to jazz, cars, and other modern inventions as what’s wrong with those youths, Fannie suggested it’s the lack of religion – or the inclusion of anything that would shake the faith of the Bible – in schools.
In observing the behaviors of asteroids, nebulas and novas, particularly one she observed in Aquilla while at the Cincinnati Observatory in 1918, she stated: “Here we have abundant evidence before our eyes that God has only to speak and a sun or a planet is created or shattered as he sees fit.” It seems her education as a young person involved God shattering people at will.
A Suffragist Poet
Fannie also advocated for women to vote, using her religion to back her cause. In this poem from the East Liverpool Review-Tribune, dated 3 Nov. 1924, she uses the allegory of the Biblical story of Mordecai and Esther to draw on voting today. “What would Esther say if you didn’t vote and let evil have their way?”
In line with the humor her college classmates saw, Fannie published a humorous winter poem in the 17 Jan. 1925 issue of East Liverpool Review. Honestly, who of us older than Gen Z hasn’t slid down a hill in the snow on a big pan?
Minster, Astronomer, and Educator
While home in East Liverpool, Fannie became a Presbyterian minister and eventually became registrar and astronomy professor for Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. When her mother died in March of 1928, her obituary said that her parents were pioneers of Columbiana County, where East Liverpool was situated, so her family was probably like East Liverpool royalty. Later that year, she earned a Master of Arts from UC.** While a minister, Fannie told “the story of the starry heavens” to Sunday school students, a session she made open to the public. (I’m guessing it was more Creationist-leaning than science-leaning.) She invited her former roommate in Cincinnati, astronomer Elliott Smith to lecture in 1930 and hosted him during his visit.
But Fannie also was able to question. When white people could not wrap their heads around non-white people knowing anything at all (and still often act like that), Fannie wrote into Popular Astronomy, Vol. 39, 1931: “Why did those ancient Egyptians carve the map of the Constellations in the form of a great spiral? Had they any hint that our Universe might have that shape? If they knew, how did they know it?”
White people, due to being colonizers, have and continue to have a dissociation with reality and history. They cannot fathom a world in which ancient people they displaced or annihilated knew how to do things before or better than them. But our knowing how they knew is often lost because we destroyed that knowledge through assimilation, removal, and annihilation. But because white people are typically oblivious to this, her question is valid in that time period. And even now, we would ask similar things. How did they know? Because we were not taught how they know. There was a disconnect as wars and colonization raged on through the centuries and traditional knowledges were lost or destroyed.
In the 30s Fannie briefly taught at Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tennessee, and then moved to Glendora, near Los Angeles, California, to teach at the Brown School for Girls, which was a middle and high school for girls to learn how to be proper ladies in society, focusing on home economics. The school made sure to note they had swimming, horseback riding, supervised recreation, separate accommodations, and a rumpus room, which Fannie no doubt disapproved of.
Fannie returned home to East Liverpool every few months to visit friends and family and died of Carcinoma in nearby Calcutta in 1949, where she’s also buried.
Efforts to assert Christianity onto everyone through public education are nothing new. It’s been happening since the first Christian nationalist colonial-settlers arrived. It’s why they were “persecuted” and kicked out of Europe in the first place. These people who want to assert their personal religious beliefs onto everyone else as law and fact will continue to shape our policies, our curriculum, our bodies, our lives, if we let them.
* Grant University is a land grant university. For more information on land grant universities, see High Country News’ investigative project at https://www.landgrabu.org/.
** Whether this was her physics degree or another one, I’m not sure.
- Family Search for Census and Ohio County Births
- Cincinnati Williams Directory and UC Annual via Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library
- Google Maps
- University of Cincinnati Blegen Library Archives and Rare Books Library
- Brian Stanberry’s wikipedia photos
- “American Temperance University” by Lost Colleges“Jerry Summers: American Temperance University – Harriman, Tn” in Chattanoogan.com