This Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating Grace Davall, who began her career in a secretarial role at the Bronx Zoo in 1923, at the age of 18, and rose through the ranks to become Assistant Curator of Mammals and Birds in 1952. Upon her retirement in 1970 until her death in 1985, she was designated Curator Emeritus.
Although we have very few first-hand accounts from early WCS staff—and fewer still from staff who didn’t hold directorial positions and, consequently, from women staff—we’re fortunate to hold some sources about Grace Davall’s work in our Archives: a “Who’s Who in the Zoo” feature on Davall that appeared in the Bronx Zoo’s staff newsletter, Zoo Log, in August 1949; a 1973 audio recording she did with NYZS Curator of Publications William Bridges; and a small collection of her records as Assistant Curator.
As she describes in the 1973 recording, her early duties at the Bronx Zoo were “many and varied.” She did everything from roll pennies for bank deposit—senior staff were entrusted with the bigger denominations—to set the type blocks for printing the zoo restaurant’s menu. About a year after beginning at the Bronx Zoo, she was promoted to the position of secretary to Raymond Ditmars and Lee Crandall, Curators of Reptiles and Birds, respectively. Although William Hornaday, the Bronx Zoo’s first director initially balked at the idea of the curators having a secretary, Davall quickly became indispensable. In the 1973 recording, she recalls the position as a “most satisfying, rewarding, and pleasant livelihood and life.”
Of course, there are some differences between now and then in the work culture for women—as evidenced in the 1949 Zoo Log article, which introduces Davall as such:
“Grace Davall is a child prodigy who decided to be different. [This is certainly in reference to the fact that she graduated high school at the age of 15, but she was also over 40 at the time of the article, making the present tense feel out of place today.] At an early age, she decided it was all right to be smart, but it was more fun to be smart and pretty, and so she’s stuck to that good resolution ever since.”
There are also differences between then and now in the duties of an Assistant Curator—the position Davall stepped into in 1952 after serving during the 1940s as Assistant to the General Curator. Davall’s role was certainly more administrative than that of an Assistant Curator today, and she seems to have had little direct involvement with zoo animals. Yet in this position she maneuvered between several assorted duties that today are covered by multiple people and departments. She served as the animal records keeper for the Reptile and Bird Departments, tracking births, accessions, transfers, and deaths, and she arranged for the transportation and quarantine of animals coming in and out of the zoo. She maintained the personnel records of these departments. She supervised all aspects of the Children’s Zoo, from hiring staff to acquiring exhibits.
And she responded, as she describes in the 1973 recording, to the “voluminous correspondence […and…] never-ending phone calls from an inquisitive and sometimes demanding public.” As we’ve described in a previous blog post, Davall was a frequent respondent to “Dear Zoo” letters, answering a public whose queries about animals couldn’t be satisfied by simply hopping on to Wikipedia. We plan to share more of these exchanges in future blog posts, but for now, we’ll leave you with one of them on a more public scale—in the form of the long-running “Ask Them Yourself” column that appeared in the national Sunday Family Weekly newspaper supplement. Here, among no less than the US president, the director of the FBI, and an international movie star, Grace Davall can be found sharing the animal expertise she cultivated over her long career.