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We’ll continue to honor Women’s History Month with another Ripley lady from the past. Flora Wambaugh was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1847 to Sarah (Sells) and A.B. Wambaugh. Her father was a Methodist minister, and as such, he was moved around to different churches on a regular basis. His ‘tour of duty’ in Ripley occurred between 1863-1865. Before the family moved to Ripley, Flora was already showed her desire and acumen for education–first taught at home, then had an A.B. degree from Cincinnati Wesleyan in 1865. (one other source says Antioch College) A.B. Wambaugh’s churches remained in the Cincinnati area after Ripley.
In 1869 Flora married Ripley-born Edwin Patterson. 1870 census shows them living in Cincinnati, he is listed as a steamboat pilot. In August of 1870, he was on the packet boat Silver Spray that exploded and he was injured. Looking in the Ripley Bees, Edwin was a clothing merchant in Ripley at no. 4 Commercial Row in 1873. the 1880 census shows them living in Ripley, he is still listed as a pilot, but according to one source, he had been in another explosion in the late 1870s and left him as an invalid, requiring Flora to take care of him and their two sons. In 1883, Flora graduates from Cincinnati Wesleyan College with an A.M. degree. In 1889, Edwin dies, leaving Flora to support herself and children. So, at the age of 42, she began graduate studies in biology at the University of Iowa. Why there? Her brother, Eugene Wambaugh held a faculty position. Eugene moved to Harvard Law in 1893, and Flora moved east with him. Flora was hoping to continue studies at Yale, but at that time Yale was not allowing women for graduate work in biology. Instead, for 3 years, she attended Harvard’s sister school, Radcliffe College. During her studies, she worked as an assistant at the Gray Herbarium at Harvard.
She joined the Division of Vegetable Pathology at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1895-96, and in 1901, was promoted to mycologist in charge of pathological collections and of inspection. (First woman mycologist to be hired by the USDA). She had a fascination with mushrooms and fungi, and significantly improved the federal collection of specimens, and identified several very significant fungal diseases, including the Chestnut tree blight. She had the first batch of Japanese cherry trees burned before they could be planted in Washington, D.C. as she found them diseased, this and other findings supported the passage of the Plant Quarantine Act of 1912. She published many articles and USDA bulletins. After a long career in the USDA, she retired in 1923, and passed away at her son Henry Sells Wambaugh’s home in 1925. Flora Wambaugh Patterson is hailed in many ‘Women of Science’ books, but her stay in Ripley is rarely mentioned. The Ripley Bee does have several early articles and an obituary. The 1916 article that discusses her career ends with ‘The many Ripley friends of Mrs. Patterson are proud of her success, and happy to know that she has attained such prominence in her field’ The Bee also says in this article that many Ripley people will remember her just as ‘Miss Flora’.
As with much research, there are some discrepancies–with Flora the years of graduation and length of stay at a given location don’t always match, and the birth year of her husband has several options, but in general, the Wambaugh/Patterson family has an impressive history.
(Her brother Euguene retired from Harvard Law School in 1925 was an advisor to the State Department on war problems, respected law scholar, had married Anna S. Hemphill of Ripley, her son Edwin was a surgeon in the U.S. Army, and other son Henry was a successful merchant in Baltimore after graduating from Harvard.)