When Frances (Flint) Hamerstrom was born in December 1908, her grandmothers fully expected that she would be presented at court. She was from a well to do family where servants and children were not regarded as people. Her childhood was filled with dancing lessons, horseback riding, travels to Europe and a domineering father and unhappy mother
To escape the unhappiness at home, young Fran developed an early love for the outdoors and the animals that inhabited it. Her parents discouraged this as it was not ladylike. She vowed to be famous because being famous would allow her to be odd. Rebellious Fran had scrapes with the law and dropped out of Smith College. At first, she sought fame as an actress and model— careers which would allow her to smoke and wear fine clothes. However, she fell madly and quickly in love with a Fredrick Hamerstrom, a biology student, and through biology, found purpose for her life—wildlife conservation. She studied under acclaimed conservationist Aldo Leopold. Fran earned her master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1940, the only woman to earn a degree under Leopold’s direction.
Massachusetts born Frances found her fame in an impoverished, overhunted, and over armed area of Wisconsin where she and her husband worked for the government establishing wildlife refuges and studying endangered species. They were among the earliest people to study undigested owl pellets to learn what the birds ate.
With Fredrick and their two children, Fran spent most of her life in a pre-Civil War house heated only with wood stoves and without indoor plumbing. At one point, when the outdoor temperature dropped to 35 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, Fran thawed the family pump by wrapping a ball gown from her east coast life around it and setting the garment on fire. The family was a happy one. She said,“Not for all the capitals in Europe and the wealth of the Indies would I give up what I had now: love, adventure, and public service in the unmapped wilds of central Wisconsin.”
She wrote ten books and over 100 research papers about prairie animals—birds were her specialty and she is most known for her work with prairie chickens. She and Fredrick were the first biologists to mark the chickens using falconer techniques. This helped them and countless volunteers who traveled to Wisconsin to work with them to understand the mating rituals of the birds. They learned that the cocks were territorial. This meant that loss of habitat would decimate the number of breeding prairie chickens. They began the Prairie Grouse Management Research unit in Plansville Wisconsin to save the birds.
Fran went on to begin the Central Wisconsin Kestrel Research Study to track these birds of prey and provide nesting boxes for them. She also studied harrier hawks and the voles that were their food. Seeing its devastating effects on her birds, she advocated for strict regulation of DDT. When she first moved to Wisconsin she met families who had so many children that some died of starvation and neglect. This lead her to become a staunch advocate and promoter of birth control.
In her words, “If we are to preserve this beautiful world of ours, with its creatures great and small and their wondrous homes we must have fewer people on Earth, we must have fewer children, or the beauty of the wild will be gone—and our security as well.”
Written for Sheroes of History by Catherine Haustein. Catherine is a scientist and fiction writer from the Midwestern United States. She and her family once saved a kestrel and her yard is frequently visited by a kestrel tot his day. Her blog can be found at catherinehaustein.com
Find out more…
If you are interested in the research in to bird which Frances conducted you can read any of her many books. See here for a selection.
The Women Making History in Wisconsin website has more information about Frances and other Wisconsin sheroes.
You can read the NY Times obituary of Frances here.