Women Tinkerers: Gender and Labor in Jellyfish Husbandry

By Sam Muka

Jellyfish are unruly in captivity. Though they are useful as experimental organisms and their unearthly and calming presence have made them popular in aquariums and hobbyist circles, they require extreme attention to keep them alive. Between 1905 and 1985, biologists, public aquarists, and hobbyists refined the methods of maintaining these beautiful but ephemeral creatures in captivity for long periods. Their success has resulted in an explosion of public exhibitions, biological research, and hobbyist products. While the technology and techniques for keeping these organisms have gained popularity, the history of their development, and especially the role of women in this history, has been largely forgotten. In jellyfish husbandry, women tinkerers leveraged perceptions of their gender as more empathic and able to care for organisms to produce highly technical data in the marine sciences.

Keeping marine organisms involves tinkering with both their physical environment and their feeding regimen and nutrition. Frank Nutch has written about the ubiquity of the ‘gadget man’ or tinkerer in marine science laboratories. Known for getting tank systems to work effectively in local environments, gadget men are respected in the lab and field for using found objects to solve technical problems. This position in the laboratory is commonly linked with men and usually a specific male personae of “hands-on, do-it-yourself” masculinity. In jellyfish husbandry, ‘gadget men’ helped develop and refine the specialized tank structures in which organisms thrive.

In jellyfish husbandry, women tinkerers leveraged perceptions of their gender as more empathic and able to care for organisms to produce highly technical data in the marine sciences.

But there is another form of tinkering involved in jellyfish husbandry, and it is performed primarily by women. Unlike mechanical tinkering, women tinker with the organism, paying close attention to eating methods, diet, behavior, and overall health. Maude Delap and Freya Sommer bookend a period of the earliest attempts to keep jellyfish in captivity and the development of widespread, reproducible techniques in the modern era. This type of tinkering in the 100 year history of jellyfish husbandry helps us not only understand the role of tinkerers but also to see the gendered categories of labor in the life sciences more clearly.

Maude Delap was the first person to successfully rear and maintain multiple jellyfish species in captivity. Born in 1866, Delap was the fifth of 10 children in Valencia, a remote island in Kerry, Ireland where she and her siblings spent days beachcombing and collecting marine organisms. They sent their findings to multiple natural history museums, and in 1899, E.T. Browne and a team from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory visited Valencia to perform a survey of the waters. Delap and Browne worked closely together during the survey and maintained a robust correspondence after he returned to England. Browne continued working with jellyfish and eventually developed the first specialized tank for keeping them in captivity. While Delap hoped to join Browne in England to study, her father required that she marry in order to leave home and travel. This stopped Delap from pursuing formal study at Plymouth, but it didn’t stop her own research.

On June 21, 1899 she picked up an injured Chrysaora Isosceles (compass jelly) off the beach. She took it home and put it into her tank, and by the next day, she found juvenile, free floating larvae (planula) in the water. There are several steps to the jellyfish lifecycle: a larva attaches to a surface and becomes a polyp. Over a long period, that polyp grows and eventually buds free-swimming tiny jellyfish called medusa. In each separate point of this lifecycle, the jellyfish require special care and diet, and no one had yet successfully reared a full grown, sexually mature jellyfish from a polyp in captivity. While many believed that invertebrates feed primarily on copepods (small crustaceans) and plankton throughout their entire lifecycle, Delap found that in the young medusa stage, they preferred feeding on other juvenile jellyfish. Delap kept extensive notes on her research and paid close attention to the feeding schedule, diet, and growth of her jellies. Many of her published findings in the Irish Naturalist surprised the biology community, and of particular interest were her claims about how and what her jellyfish ate.

By spring, she had small jellyfish, and by May, they reached full adult size with 24 tentacles. Unfortunately, the weather turned stormy, so Delap was unable to keep providing her remaining jellyfish with their preferred food. They lost weight and died. But Delap’s methodical study of the compass jelly paid off. Over the next six years, she managed to rear and maintain mauve stingers, moon jellies, and blue fire jellies in her tanks and published all of her findings, including feeding charts.

Delap’s work with jellies is characteristic of “women’s work” or “female labor” in the sciences. Theorists such as Donna Haraway and Hilary Rose have pointed out that women are often relegated to activities that emphasize and reinforce pre-existing notions of women as caregivers and maternal figures. In the life sciences, this often means working with live animals by paying close attention to their behavior and individual personalities. The gendered division of labor is quite clear in this case; E.T. Browne worked on tank design while Delap worked with the organism. But there are deeper cultural forces that enforce this division. Given Delap’s upbringing and her father’s insistence that she maintain certain gender norms in the scientific community, her work with jellyfish was most likely seen as an acceptable form of research.

It is important to call Delap a tinkerer in her own sense and to highlight the ways Delap’s work resists easy categorization as “women’s work.” Delap, for example, doesn’t refer to her jellies in a personal way or treat them as pets or individuals. To Delap, these organisms are akin to an intricate mechanical system to which she is applying various inputs (food) to gauge output (survival), and her extensive note taking reveal a tinkerer’s way of thinking. She might have been allowed or encouraged to work with jellyfish due to preconceptions about the appropriate work for women in the life sciences, but she was just as much a tinkerer as Browne.  

This division of gendered tinkering in jellyfish husbandry continued throughout the 20th century, with a succession of male researchers updating tank design and female researchers working on the physical responses of jellyfish to stimuli. Mary Lebour, a colleague of Browne’s at Plymouth, confirmed Delap’s findings regarding jellyfish diets. Both Yoshiko Kakinuma and Dorothy Breslin Spangenberg made strides in determining the proper care and stimuli to get jellies to reproduce and thrive in captivity. Kakinuma (1975), working at the Ueno Aquarium in Japan, induced spawning in jellyfish by shifting water temperature. Spangenberg (1965), managed to maintain her jellyfish for over three years at the University of Arkansas medical laboratory by keeping them in artificial seawater that she changed after twice-weekly feedings.

To Delap, these organisms are akin to an intricate mechanical system to which she is applying various inputs (food) to gauge output (survival), and her extensive note taking reveal a tinkerer’s way of thinking.

In 1985, Freya Sommer, then a husbandry specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California turned her attention to the ultimate husbandry problem: consistently maintaining a wide range of jellies for display. Sommer was one of the first researchers to try to identify the basic requirements of consistently keeping a wide array of jellies alive in the same location. According to her co-worker, David C. Powell, who was tinkering with tank design at the time, “Freya possessed an empathy for the animals plus an ability to focus her energies and approach her work problems scientifically.” The gendered association of women with empathy and animals remained integral to the practice of jellyfish husbandry well into the late 20th century.

Like Delap, Sommer gathered a variety of species and proceeded to tinker with their diet, habitat, and water temperature in order to consistently rear and breed them in captivity. By 1992, she had worked out in extensive tables the requirements of 17 species of jellyfish. The subsequent exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, entitled “Planet of the Jellies,” was the first of its kind in the world and has led to an explosion, not only of public aquarium exhibits, but of work on jellyfish in both the research and hobbyist communities as well.

Both Delap and Sommer were doing highly technical work with jellyfish. While they might have been allowed to participate in scientific research because of the perceived acceptability of their work in terms of gender, they used that perception of women’s labor in the sciences to perform very sophisticated scientific work. They followed clear paths to data production by keeping laboratory notebooks and performing consistent experimentation. Their work, and that of all of the women working with jellyfish throughout the 20th century, tells us that while women have often been relegated to a particular type of work in the marine sciences, they have used those opportunities to make great contributions to the field of marine biology.

While most mechanical tinkerers in the marine sciences are men, most animal husbandry tinkerers are women. Women are often concentrated in areas where it is perceived that they can use their natural empathy in scientific research, including working with small animals or children. But in the marine sciences, and in many lab settings, we might do better to think about this organism work as a form of tinkering as well — one that recognizes that women are participating in scientific knowledge production while operating in a system that consistently requires them operate as a gendered participant.

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