Graceanna Lewis

August 3, 1821 - February 25, 1912

Graceanna Lewis was born on August 3rd 1821. She was raised on a farm in West Vincent Township by John and Esther Lewis, during the abolition movement. Her home served as one of many stations along the “Underground Railroad,” accommodated to fit up to 11 runaway slaves at one time.

At the young age of three, Graceanna’s father died, leaving her mother to raise her and her sisters alone. Fortunately, Esther Lewis had been a teacher before her marriage, and was able to homeschool Graceanna until she was old enough for boarding school. Graceanna attended the Kimberton Boarding School for Girls run by fellow Quakers, the Kimbers. It was here she became interested in botany from watching the Kimber’s daughter Abigail identify and catalog plants. She completed her studies in 1842 moving on to teach botany and chemistry at a boarding school in York, Pennsylvania.

After the death of her mother, Graceanna and her sisters decided to adopt an orphaned girl, Ellen. During this time, one of Graceanna’s friends introduced her to bird watching. She acquired the book, The Birds of North America, and quickly learned all of the birds in her garden. She had an innate talent and love for identifying birds.

She left home in the 1850s and went on to study at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. At the Academy, she helped John Cassin, one of the leading ornithologists of the world, and mentor to Graceanna, identify the mounted birds coming from Africa. Through the museum collection, she discovered her own bird species, a uni-colored blackbird, Agelaius cyanopus.

Graceanna’s most important work in the field of natural history was the preparation of a “Chart of the Class of Birds”; a “Chart of the Animal Kingdom”; a “Chart of the Vegetable Kingdom”; a “Chart of Geology, with Special References to Paleontology” and “Water-color Paintings of Wild Flowers.” From the result of her studies in 1869, she printed a small pamphlet showing the relationship between birds of the animal kingdom.

In 1877, her mentor John Cassin died, and Graceanna applied for a position teaching natural history at Vassar University. Unfortunately, she did not receive the job as women were not considered as qualified as men. Instead, she accepted a position at the Foster School of Children in New York. At the school, she tried her best to captivate the students through the use of visual aids. Her lessons included charts, stuffed animals, and paintings.

One of the visual aids was an award winning chart of natural history with a wax model showing animal relations. The chart previously received attention by the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, later receiving an award for “creating unique and important original work in the department of zoology.” Soon after her award from the Centennial, she moved back home to live with her adopted daughter, Ellen and her new son-in-law. This allowed her to dedicate her time to painting nature.

In 1893, Graceanna received a grant, and painted a set of 50 watercolor images of leaves on trees for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The paintings impressed Dr. Joseph Rothrock, the Father of Pennsylvania Forestry, and Lewis received a bronze medal along with a Diploma from the exposition. The paintings were displayed again at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Graceanna continued to paint until her death on February 25th 1912.