Unsung Heroines

September/October 2006

Betty Shor

Photo of Betty & George Shor

George & Betty Shor

Elizabeth “Betty” Noble Shor was born into a life of science. Her father, James A. Noble, was a professor of mining geology at Caltech from the fall of 1947 until his retirement in the mid- 1960s. Betty Noble attended Pasadena City College for one year and then studied zoology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She married George Shor in 1950. George began graduate studies at the Caltech Seismology Lab in 1951, completing his thesis under the supervision of Charles Richter in 1953. At the time, career paths in science were not generally open to women, especially those with young children.

When the 1952 Kern County, California, earthquake struck, Richter and everyone else at the Seismo Lab was overwhelmed by data. One day as Shor was visiting the lab with her infant son in tow, Richter overheard her asking questions about the work being done there, and he approached her. “Out of the blue,” she recalled, Richter asked whether she would be interested in work as a paid assistant.

Shor looked back recently with a guess and a laugh as to Richter’s motivations. “Who was cheaper to hire than a grad student’s wife?” she said. Yet Richter was not given to hiring cheap labor; he had a keen eye for and appreciation of talent and a willingness to put it to use. Shor’s mother, who lived in Pasadena, jumped at the chance to watch over her grandson a couple of days a week so that Shor could work part-time at the lab, where her duties included everything from helping with routine logging of earthquakes to the generation of plots. Shor recalled one figure that turned out to be a complete “scattergram”—to Richter’s delight, because he hadn’t expected to see a correlation in the data.

Shor soon put her many talents to use beyond seismology, most notably in research and publishing.

She worked as a historian for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for many years. Among her many projects there was her 1978 book, Scripps Institution of Oceanography: Probing the Oceans, 1936–1976, which remains the definitive history of the institution during the mid-20th century. These days she continues to edit the Scripps Ancient Mariners newsletter. (“Ancient Mariners” are “a bunch of enthusiasts, especially anyone who works or studies or has worked or studied at Scripps Institution of Oceanography or is related to same.”)

Shor’s first book, Fossils and Flies, published in 1971, is a biography of Samuel Wendell Williston, the paleontologist who established the Department of Geology at the University of Kansas. Williston, who is credited with making enormous contributions to his university, as well as his work to establish paleontological collections, was George Shor’s grandfather.

Another of Betty Shor’s life passions has resulted in a compilation of the flowering characteristics for all the world’s species of bamboo, a listing that has grown to 125 pages and shows that, even with so much data, one cannot predict precise flowering intervals. In addition, with her son, Donald Shor, she coedits Bamboo, the magazine of the American Bamboo Society.

Betty and George Shor reside in La Jolla, California.





Posted: 01 September 2006