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Julia Barlow Platt

Contributed by John F. Barlow

Stephen J. Zottoli  Department of Biology
Williams College   Williamstown, Massachusetts 01267

Julia Barlow Platt was born on September 14, 1857 in San Francisco, California. Her father, George King Platt was a lawyer who was states attorney for Vermont from 1840-1842.  He married Ellen Loomis Barlow on June 20,  1849. Ellen Barlow was the daughter of Sidney Barlow, who dealt in mercantile trade in the Burlington, Vermont area. George King Platt died nine days after his daughter's birth. We have been unable to trace her early years, although she was most likely raised by her mother in Burlington. Platt entered the University of Vermont at Burlington in 1879 and obtained a Ph.B. degree in three years, as indicated by her records in the University of Vermont archives.

The Board and Batten, Newsletter of the Pacific Grove Heritage Society

Julia Barlow Platt was a comparative embryologist and neurobiologist who was primarily interested in segmentation of the head in vertebrates. She was born on September 14, 1857 in San Francisco, California. Platt grew up in Burlington, Vermont, attended the University of Vermont and began graduate studies at Harvard University. Her nine years as a graduate student were spent on two continents with some of the most influential comparative zoologists of the time. Platt's remarkable scientific accomplishments over a ten year period include a description of axial segmentation currently used in the staging of chick embryos and the first description of a separate anterior head segment in Squalus embryos. Her most controversial study identified ectodermal cells in Necturus embryos that gave rise to head cartilage and dentine, a discovery which was the impetus for the reassessment and modification of the germ layer concept. She was one of the first women to 'matriculate' at a German university and receive a Ph.D. degree.

Platt played a pioneer role in opening opportunities for other women who followed her. Platt was one of the first women neuroscientists. Among her contributions. she distinguished dorso-lateral placodes, epibranchial placodes, and the first stages of lateral line organs in Necturus, and she described nerve fibers originating in the spinal cord and extending to the noto- chord in Branchiostoma (= Amphioxus).

After receiving a Ph.D. degree in Freiburg, Germany in 1898, Platt was unable to secure a suitable teaching position and, as a result, her scientific career came to an end. She retired to Pacific
Grove, California, where she pursued civic duty with the same vigor and energy she had dedicated to scientific research.

A FIRST LADY MAYOR

Julia B. Platt entered Pacific Grove politics with a shot-gun. Exasperated by the continual forays of a neighbor's chickens on her flower garden, she summarily shot the worst offenders. The neighbor appealed to the police. Miss Platt, revealing her comprehension of legal rights and civic authority, countered by having an ordinance passed which zoned certain limits of the city against chickens or other livestock. From then until her death nearly thirty years later, (1935), she constituted herself the town's watchdog.

Combine rugged individualism, high and radical intelligence with a fierce sense of civic duty in the person of a vigorous, dynamic maiden lady and the result is likely to be "hell on wheels"-- although she was also known as "a grand ol' gal."

Pacific Grove owes much of its beauty to her. Single-handed she beautifed Lover's Point, clearing the land, raking, hoeing, watering the plot zealously. She trundled a wheelbarrow of plants and garden implements through the streets of the city, on her way to the "Point." She was a familiar and eccentric figure in her old-fashioned dress with its tight bodice and long full skirt. Her bushy white hair was cut short, almost like a man's; she wore a mannish hat, a little triangular shawl, and carried a small market basket with her wherever she went. She was a tall woman who walked vigorously with her shoulders thrown back and her stomach forward-- she must have been a formidable figure to the lazy or stupid.

Imagine the impact of Julia B. Platt, when as a maiden lady of forty-three, she retired to Pacific Grove, a strait-laced temperance town of churches and white jig-saw houses and proceeded single-handed to make a beautiful progressive, sensibly run town of it. Miss Platt spoke out with candor; she knew she had more intelligence, honesty, and aggressiveness than most of the other citizens, and never hesitated to admit it. She made no secret of the fact that her views on religion were unorthodox -- some suspected her of being an atheist. But worst of all, she was a scientist, a zoologist, who believed she knew a bit more about the ways of God and man, than anyone except a few other zoologists -- darned few.

The lady watchdog sat down in front at the town council meetings, a "regular, interested, forceful, and delightful participant" Vigilant as a hawk, sharp as a ferret, she pounced on every irregularity, evasion, sentimentality in civic affairs, mincing no words at all. There was a packed house every time the council met in those days. Everyone came to hear what Miss Platt would have to say. She never hesitated to disagree and always spoke exactly what was on her mind.

After twenty years of combating, vocally and with paid advertisements in the local paper, what she considered the inefficiencies and abuse of the town government, she drafted with her own hand, a city charter, circulated the petition, and won its adoption.

For a while, peace reigned. Then bang! A controvery developed over the bath house and beach at the foot of Forest Avenue. The bath house and property adjoining the beach was owned by Mrs. Mattie McDougall who erected a barrier across her property, preventing public access to the beach in retaliation when the city condemned the bath house. Miss Plat contended that the citie's original deed from the Pacific Improvement Company guaranteed public right of way to the beach. Mrs. McDougall countered that the old deed had long since lapsed on account the deterioration of morals.
"Wrong," said Julia Platt and with that she opened the gate. Back and forth the opening and the closing of the gate feud went on-- Mattie locked, Julia filed. Mattie nailed, Julia chopped. Finally Mattie slapped a summons on Julia in 1932, the complaint said that Julia "kept the entrance free by using axes, saws, sledge hammers, and files." The city council got so tired of being told off by Miss Platt that they said, "OK, you run things" and made her Mayor. In fact, hers was a hotly contested campaign against strong opposition based on her age (74), her sex, and her alleged lack of tact. Her platform was simple. "It will take a good man to beat me," she said, "and if a good  man is elected that will be all the better." She won. The story of her election was widely publicized over the country -- with resulting fame for Pacific Grove.

Then came the happenings. She made Foster and Kleiser remove the Bull Durham sign. She fought for a bathing suit ordinance, forcing men to cover their torsos, and such depictions of barnyard romances -- all were in nasty taste and detrimental to the morals of the young.

Miss Platt had by the sheer power of good sense and patience secured harmony and cooperation, but not for long, for Mrs. McDougall sued the city for $8,000 over the bath house. A fine fight developed over the Platt regime. The Chamber of Commerce agitated for the city to buy the bath house and avoid the suit. She ran for re-election, opposed by a councilman who said he was opposed "to highbrows, savants, idealists and visionaries." He lost.

Soon Mayor Platt found herself bucking the whole town. Time proved her right, it must have been fun for before her term ended in 1933 she fought for and established the principle of "work relief" rather than the dole. Pacific Grove's beautiful bathing beach, a WPA project, was the result.

She died in 1935, but managed to cause the city fathers discomfort even after her death. For in a note, she requested that, sailor-fashion, her body be encased in a wicker basket and cast into the sea. Civic dignitaries traditionally accompany the body of a Mayor to its last resting place. Twelve miles out to sea in a small fishing launch went the party, and twelve miles back after their office was accomplished. Even the most stalwort among them must have felt some qualms of mal-de-mer. One prefers not to contemplate the suffering of others. But how her spirit must have chuckled, as her body sank into the sea. True to her sex, she had, if not the last word, the last laugh.


Photo courtesy of the city of Pacific Grove

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