Unsung Heroines

July/August 2006

Gertrude Killeen

Photo of Gertrude Killeen

Gertrude Killeen

In 1979, Caltech archivist Ann Scheid asked Charles Richter about women who had made research contributions during the early years at the Caltech Seismological Laboratory. Richter replied, “For many years two of the mainstays of the routine of the Laboratory were Gertrude Killeen, who did most of the photographic work, and Violet Taylor, who became my assistant in the measuring department.”

In the mid-20th century the Southern California Seismic Network comprised only a handful of independently operating stations, and the routine business of developing the records was a long way from the automated procedures and real-time communications that networks employ today. Film records from stations elsewhere in California were mailed to Pasadena in special black envelopes once a week, mostly courtesy of a network of volunteers enlisted to help with early—and very poorly funded—earthquake monitoring efforts. Killeen handled the development of these records for many years. Those who knew her speak highly of her abilities; they also paint a portrait of a lively—perhaps one might say colorful— personality. Betty Shor, who also worked as a paid assistant to Richter in the 1950s, recalled Gertrude as having done an outstanding job printing the photographic records, adding, “One could tell when things weren’t going as well as she wished, because she would burst into some great swearing.”

A chain-smoking Irish woman, Gertrude brooked no nonsense—with anyone. She made coffee for the lab and, as long-time Seismo Lab technician David Johnson said, “You didn’t complain about the coffee,” hinting that one might have had cause to complain. Colleagues also recall Killeen’s visceral dislike of lizards, an unfortunate characteristic for someone employed in the semi-arid foothills of Southern California. But mostly they recall her warm humor and smile, and her long years of valued contributions to the early days of network operations. Killeen died in 1978 at the age of 76.

Susan Hough





Posted: 30 June 2006