Oil painting portrait of Harriet Exline Frizzell

Oil Painting Portrait of Harriet Exline Frizzell.


Early life and education

Harriet Exline Frizzell was born in Walla Walla, Washington, on May 8, 1909. In 1930, she graduated from Reed College with her BS in biology, then earned an MS in zoology from the University of Washington, Seattle in 1932. She continued her research on the spider species of the area at the University of Washington, earning her PhD in 1936. Frizzell spent her summers collecting specimens at the university’s biological station at Friday Harbor. During the academic year, she studied the behavior of various species of spider, including research on the diet of black widow spiders. Frizzell completed postdoctoral studies at Yale in 1937, under Dr. Alexander Petrunkevich; she remained close friends with him, and they corresponded for more than ten years after.


A budding researcher

Frizzell stayed in South America—primarily Peru and Ecuador—from 1938 to 1943, performing independent research and collecting specimens. In Ecuador, she met Donald L. Frizzell, a paleontologist and geologist, and they married in 1938. Frizzell was supportive of his wife’s scientific research, and the two often made collecting trips together. Both Harriet and Donald Frizzell taught at the University of Texas and later the University of Arkansas.


Working for the Academy

Frizzell worked for the California Academy of Sciences from 1948 to 1960, primarily in independent research for the Academy from her home in Missouri. She discovered around 500 species of spiders in her life, and published various other materials on spider classification and behavior. Frizzell was very active in the arachnology community of the time, corresponding with prominent arachnologists and identifying the specimens they collected. Frizzell supervised a National Science Foundation-funded study of the spiders found in cotton fields, among other prestigious projects, and left much of her work unfinished when she died. Among the condolence cards sent to her husband are letters asking to borrow her notes and collections to complete research.


Frizzell's legacy

Despite her enormous contributions to the field of arachnology, Frizzell considered herself a housewife first and a scientist second. Her work on spiders was her passion, but she never viewed it as more than a hobby, and she struggled to balance collecting with running a household. Despite her enormous achievements, among them being the first woman to receive Yale’s prestigious Sterling Fellowship, Frizzell lived in an era where women were simply not welcomed into the scientific community as fully recognized researchers. Frizzell died in 1968.



Frizzell, H.E. Curriculum vitae. 1965.

Gertsch, W.J. Willis J. Gertsch to Harriet Exline Frizzell. Letter.

Petrunkevich, A. Alexander Petrunkevich to Harriet Exline Frizzell, New Haven, CT, 1932–1963. Letters. California Academy of Sciences Archives.

Schwartz, M.M.E. “Harriet Exline Frizzell 1909–1968.” California Academy of Sciences Archives.


About the author

Marion Richardson-Beatty is a Careers in Science Level 3 intern at the California Academy of Sciences.

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