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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Paleobiology

Dr. Cushman

Dr. Cushman working in the laboratory in his home in Sharon, Massachusetts.

Cushman's Grandson visits the Smithsonian

by My Le Ducharme & Brian Huber

David Hill*, grandson of the renowned foraminiferologist Joseph A. Cushman, visited the Smithsonian on 18 September, 1995 to look at some of the Cushman memorabilia stored on the collection shelves. In particular, he was interested in reading some of the letters that Cushman's colleagues and students sent to him for the 25th Anniversary of the opening of the Cushman Laboratory for Foraminiferal Research in Sharon, MA. Many of Hill's memories of Cushman and the laboratory are from a year spent living next to the Cushmans in 1943 when Hill was 7 years old. He recounted some of those memories during a visit to the Natural History Museum.

It was 1943, and I was in 2nd grade. We rented a house near the Cushmans where we lived for one year, while my father was stationed in Hawaii during World War II. He (Cushman) had built a separate house that he used for his laboratory. Most of my early memories were from that year when I was 7 years old. I was the oldest. I had 2 younger brothers who were 5 and 2 at the time. He set us up with a microscope in a separate room to get us out from underfoot so he could do his research. People from all over the world who were experts in their fields would come to visit him. They'd expect to find this dignified doctor but instead they'd sometimes find him out walking in the woods or working in the garden. He knew all the different flora and fauna along these paths that ran throughout the property. After the war we moved back to NJ in 1946 and visited him every month or so. He and Ruth Todd were really gracious. They made us feel like we were part of the process. He influenced me to major in geology and even led me to do a senior thesis at Cornell on identifying small forams.

He first married Alice Wilson and had 3 children, Robert, Alice and Ruth. When my mother , Ruth Cushman Hill, was 2, his first wife died of tuberculosis. This was in 1912. He had 3 young children and needed someone to take care of them, so he advertised for a caretaker for his 3 children. He ended up hiring "Tui" who stayed with them until she died in 1937. She stayed with them even after he married Frieda Billings in 1913.

The whole family helped when he first published his book. It was really a family affair. Everybody helped out with his research in some way. Grampy Cushman was a prolific writer. Mother graduated from Wellesley in the 1930s and later got her Masters. She majored in botany and received a Masters in landscape architecture. My father was an electrical engineer for Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York City. He was from California and had gone to Stanford. He moved to New York City to work at Bell after he graduated. He and my uncle [Robert Cushman] worked there together and were friends. My uncle invited my father on a camping trip while Grampy and Grammy Cushman were on a trip in Europe. That's how my mother and father met. My grandmother came back from Europe and found that my mother was madly in love.

The Cushmans had chickens and a chicken coop so they always had fresh eggs. And a couple of frog ponds. We always enjoyed the woods and the paths in the woods going down to the brook. They had 3 foxholes and huge boulders that I climbed on after I was big enough. Ruth Todd was very soft-spoken, very kind. She was extremely dedicated to her work. Grampy Cushman had written to a friend of his at the University of Washington, Julian Barksdale, in the Dept. of Geology asking him if he knew someone who could be his assistant. And he [Barksdale] recommended Ruth Todd who was in her early 20s. She made the trip across the country on the train and helped Grampy Cushman with his work. She had a small cabin in back of the Cushman house. She continued working with forams even after his death in March, 1940. My aunt Alice, his daughter, worked as his secretary.

In 1948 or 1949, they told us he had "stomach" cancer. I remember he had to have a lot of radiation treatment which left him very tired and weak. I've got just good memories of him. He was always gracious and kind. I was 11 when he died.

After he died, they moved all his collection to the Smithsonian. We came down in 1952 to visit the collection and Ruth Todd, who was working here at the time. She was just about like family. We (all of the children) came and signed the guest book here. It was nice to come back and see our signatures in that book.

My aunt Alice was an extremely meticulous and detailed worker. Once she got done editing his book or any publication, it was perfect. She was an epileptic during a time when it wasn't really socially acceptable for epileptics to be out and visible. She became extremely depressed after Grampy Cushman died. He was her mainstay; gave her a real purpose for living. I believe her suicide was linked to the depression brought on by Grampy Cushman's death. I think if he'd still been living, her life would've been different. Later, Grammy Cushman put herself in a nursing home, the neighbors said how terrible it was that they [the children] put her in a nursing home when, in fact, she did it herself.

After Ruth Todd retired, I lost contact with the Cushman collection. Recently, my father moved in with us in Georgia. Based on my father's suggestion to look at Grampy Cushman's collection, I decided to come and visit.

I developed an interest in engineering because my father and 2 uncles were engineers. I was trying to decide between foraminifera and engineering. I ended up choosing engineering. Now I live and work in Georgia.


              —Reprinted from the October, 1995 NAMS Newsletter, v. 16, no. 2

*Hill graduated from Cornell University with an A.B. in geology and from Stanford University with a M.S. and Ph.D in environmental engineering. He currently resides just outside Athens, Georgia and works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Ground water Protection Branch in Atlanta.