August 14, 1884 - Aug. 12, 1950
“… the outstanding characteristic of Dr. Hayden’s life and career was her unusual devotion to duty and her loyalty to her friends. A sparkling sense of humor endeared her to her associates. She had the power to discern talent in her students and was an inspiration to them in shaping their careers.” From Ada Hayden’s Obituary, in the Ames Tribune, Aug. 14, 1950
It was her three-mile walk to school each day that led Iowa State’s first woman Ph.D. and most famous naturalist down her path as a scientist. Ada Hayden grew up just northwest of Ames and loved to watch the flowers on the prairie as they changed with the seasons.
While attending Ames High School, she brought the principal a bouquet of “pale blue bell-shaped” pasqueflowers that she had picked from the prairie. Iowa State botany professor L.H. Pammel was visiting the school that day and asked to meet the person who brought the flowers that reminded him of his childhood. That incident was the beginning of a friendship between Pammel and Hayden that would last until his death in 1931.
After high school, Hayden pursued her Bachelor of Science degree at Iowa State. Despite her shorter stature—she was 5’2”—she played basketball at the school. She graduated in 1908, and continued her education at Washington University, where she received her Master’s, and the Universities of Colorado and Chicago.
When Hayden entered the professional job market in 1910, there was a good deal of skepticism about the integration of women in many academic fields. Professor Pammel wrote Hayden a letter of recommendation for a position at an Agricultural Experiment Station in New Hampshire, and received the following response:
“We are entirely satisfied in regard to her Botanical ability but note that you say nothing in regard to her personality. In a small institution and in one where but few women have been members of the faculty this is a very important point. Lack of neatness, too great freedom in talking, or other characteristics of a similar nature might be greatly against her success. I should be glad to hear from you in regard to Miss Hayden’s general personality.”
She returned to Iowa State the following year, and the once shy Hayden would spend most of her life at the school in the midst of the land she loved. In 1918, Hayden became the first woman and fourth person to earn a Ph.D. at Iowa State. She began her tenure as an Assistant Professor of Botany in 1919 and became curator of the school’s Herbarium in 1932, serving in both posts until her death. As curator she collected over 40,000 specimens for the Herbarium’s collection.
Hayden started the Prairie Preserve idea in Iowa and was one of the first scientists to look upon the prairie as its own ecosystem. Upon receiving an Iowa Academy of Science grant, she located a total of 111 prairies around the state, which led to the creation of three prairie reserves in Howard, Emmet, and Calhoun counties.
Hayden’s passion for conservation issues did not always gain her popularity. Her lack of tact may have hampered her career and prevented her from moving past assistant professor level, even though she had 29 published writings. Dr. Duane Isley, who, as a student, worked with Hayden at the Herbarium, stated, “When I knew her, she was gray-haired, walked with a sprightly step and was decidedly a personality with a quick and often tart tongue. It is said that she was a bashful person when young: she assuredly had been cured when I knew her … She was about as subtle as an iceberg falling through a skylight.”
Now, Hayden is recognized nationally as an important conservationist. The city of Ames decided to honor her by opening the 437 acre Ada Hayden Heritage Park in 2007, enabling others to experience the nature she so loved.
“The prairie itself has intrinsic merits aside from its bearing with reference to crop insurance. It presents a colorful display of flowering plants throughout the growing season; it is the potential source of economic plants whose uses have not yet been explored. It affords opportunity for the study of the life histories of animals, the knowledge of which has a practical bearing upon their integration with the agricultural environment. It serves as a standard of reference for landscaping, it constitutes type specimens of the native vegetation and soil associations and provides living examples of the fauna and flora which as indispensable in educational work.” --Ada Hayden from the unpublished “Prairie Project”