I was first introduced to the work of Cardy Raper while interning at her publishing house, Green Writers Press, in Vermont where she currently lives. The work I’m referring to are her books, though, as I would learn, they just scratch the surface of Raper’s many achievements. Raper had first been a scientist in the field of mycology, studying the reproductive genes of Schizophyllum commune, a wood-rotting fungi. She earned a PhD from Harvard University and become a researcher and lecturer there before being elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Not long after she hung up her lab coat, she picked up her pen. At ninety-four, her latest work is a memoir entitled Love, Sex, & Mushrooms: Adventures of a Women in Science. Spanning from the 1920s to the present day, the book details her extensive love affair with science and the work she conducted before and after the death of her supervisor-turned-husband, John “Red” Raper.
I was eager to sit down with Raper—someone whose career has spanned over half a century and twice my lifespan—and hear her insights into the world of science, womanhood, and a life well-lived.
The Rumpus: I’ve heard that you’re working on a new book about your mother.
Cardy Raper: Yes, I’m maybe two-thirds of the way through referencing the materials that she’d saved over the years, much of which I’ve never seen before. I’m learning a great deal about what her life was like as a part of history for women.
Rumpus: I felt similarly after reading your story. You mention early on in Love, Sex, & Mushrooms that you wanted to become a scientist so that you could make discoveries. How much of that stemmed from being the youngest child, and only girl, of your mother’s five kids?
Raper: A small extent, maybe. My first inspiration in the field of science was a third-grade teacher who came to our school once a week. He taught science as a grand adventure. That was when I decided that I really wanted to become a scientist and discover new things, back when little girls were not supposed to become scientists. [Laughs]
Rumpus: Would you say that you still have that discoverer’s mentality?
Raper: Absolutely. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to preserve that childhood sense of curiosity. Now, as I come to researching my mother, I see phrases like, “Going to school is just the one stage of learning. You’ll be learning things all of your life,” and she was right. I still am.
Rumpus: You come from a time when, as you said, being a woman in science was not something that was commonly done. When writing Love, Sex, & Mushrooms, was there an intention of social change through sharing your story or was the writing more of a personal journey?
Raper: I think it was both. I also feel really strongly that people who have not been steeped in science the way that I have been really should know more about it. The whole approach of how science is done, how we ask questions and how we set up experiments to test the answers to those questions.
Rumpus: It’s obvious that you’re still passionate about the processes of science even though you officially retired over twenty years ago, at seventy.
Raper: Officially, yes. That was in 1994. I still had a hand in the lab for another ten years.
Rumpus: It’s since been another ten years and you’ve written Love, Sex, & Mushrooms. Would you say that part of your motivation for writing it came from wanting to remain in that world of science that you are so passionate about?
Raper: Yes, absolutely.
Rumpus: It’s been said that you should follow your curiosity rather than your passion, but it seems that your career had its fair share of both. Which would you say was your driving force?
Raper: Oh, yes, both of them. I think the passion is necessary to accomplish what you want to do. During the period after my husband’s death, I had to take over and that was a very stressful period for me. I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I was just working like crazy, just to get the credentials to carry on with what we had been doing. So, you need passion. You need that to keep going.
Rumpus: When you took over, you already had a college degree, you had traveled, you were married, and you were a mother in addition to working in your chosen field. Some people might have thought that you “had it all,” but that looks different for everyone. Did you ever feel that way?
Raper: I don’t think you ever have it all. If you do—or think that you do—then I would say your aspirations are limited. Everything is incomplete, but if you don’t have unaccomplished trips or ideas or work, there’s not much point in living.
Rumpus: At one point in your career, females weren’t even permitted through the front door at the Harvard Faculty Club, but you went on to gain a PhD from Harvard and to have your own lab there. That’s really incredible. Gender bias is perhaps less systemic these days, but it’s still evident. What would you say needs to be done to overcome that?
Raper: Well, you know, I don’t necessarily feel that we should have “female equality.” I think we should have fairness, yes, but also to just honor what every individual is capable of doing and support that. I mean, I can recognize that there are inherent differences between males and females, but in my view, feminism is not all about women. It’s about the welfare of men as well. I think we would all be better off as a species if we honored one another for what we could do rather than for our gender.
Rumpus: When you had secured your lab at Harvard, your team of research assistants were all female. Was there a message to the administration in doing that or were you strictly looking at their capabilities?
Raper: Well, after Red had passed away, the only two people who stayed with me in the lab and whom I could afford to pay were Margaret Benson and a female assistant who was my technician. That was all I could afford. That they happened to be women was a coincidence.
Rumpus: I didn’t realize that. I thought that you’d chosen them.
Raper: Well, I did, in a way, but they were also the ones who were available to me and I had hardly any grant money to run the lab at the time. So, I did what I could. I’d also tried to get a position in someone’s else’s lab to continue the work Red and I had been doing, but it turns out that the other faculty members would only accept me into their lab to do their thing. But I didn’t want to do their thing. I wanted to do our thing. My thing.
Rumpus: I was curious about that. You kept on with mycology, but it was genetics that had interested you in the beginning, right?
Raper: Oh, I continued with genetics, by all means. It was definitely a basis for what I was trying to do, but the reason I went on with [mycology] was because I really loved the work. I found it fascinating and there seemed to be so much more to do. It was the dawn of the molecular age, when one could look not just at where genes were located and how many there might be, but also what they do, what they encode, what kind of molecules they make. I had a lot of learning to do to get to that point.
Rumpus: You essentially had to become a molecular geneticist in order to find the answers you wanted, which blew my mind. Sex is a complicated topic in any event, but especially for mushrooms, it turns out.
Raper: Yes! The genes that regulate the twenty-three thousand sexes that we found exist in Schizophyllum commune are genes and molecules that are used throughout the animal kingdom for all sorts of things. There’s also a whole group of molecules that are encoded by another cluster of genes, called homeo-domain proteins, which are responsible for a massive cascade of genetic events. They’re molecules that Mother Nature has used over and over again in various forms to accomplish things in various organisms aside from fungi.
I wish more people knew more about that. Fungi as we know them originated about five hundred million years ago and coincided with the origin of land plants. The two go hand-in-hand. In fact, we wouldn’t have the forests or plants that we have without the fungi aiding them. Certain fungi form networks under the ground that allow for plants and trees to communicate with one another about what’s in the environment and how to deal with it. The fungi provide the plants with molecules and the plants in turn feed the fungi, so it’s a cooperative effort that’s extremely important to our entire environment.
Rumpus: Do you think that fungi are in danger, with old growth forests being diminished and other environmental issues at hand?
Raper: Well, it’s changing. That’s something that I’ve learned even more acutely as I’ve grown older. Everything—every single thing—is changing all the time. Some of that change we are aiding and abetting as humans. We think we’re so clever that we can control our environment, but we really do a lot of damage by trying to do that. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not just the organisms on Earth but even the inanimate aspects of earth—rock and sand and soil—that are all one big interacting process which we will never fully understand. Although, we should keep trying.
Rumpus: Speaking to that perpetual change, a more recent change has been the pressure placed on women to have illustrious careers, whereas the opposite was true just a few decades ago. What was your experience when you decided to further your career while raising your family?
Raper: At home, I had a lot of support. But it was very obvious to me from the time that I got terribly excited about science back in third grade that the boys were the favored ones. They were the ones who were encouraged to go on to college and seek a real career. They were the ones that were expected to go out and accomplish something in the world.
Furthermore, what I noticed as I grew up was that it was the men who were always the first promoted and who got the top jobs. When my husband and I first moved to Harvard from The University of Chicago, there were no full professors who were women. None. During my time at Harvard, one was finally promoted. She was the wife of a Nobel Laureate and should have shared his prize with him, because she was in the lab alongside him doing the work and he would never have gotten the prize without her. She finally achieved full professorship in 1970-something, which is pretty late. So, I’ve watched this profession change and it’s made a difference.
Rumpus: How was the process, coming up against those kinds of odds?
Raper: You know, you don’t know. It was a lot of work already. I got the degree, I did a post-doc, and I was very well-respected and supported in my circle, but in general, when I applied for a position after I’d gotten my credentials, I found it hard to be accepted. I attributed that not just to being a female but also to being older. By then, I was in my fifties and looking for a job. So, gender bias is not the only problem. I finally found a job and was able to succeed, but it was through people who’d gotten to know me and what I could do.
Rumpus: There’s a kind of irony there. You were discredited when you were middle-aged and now everyone reveres the wisdom of old age and is seeking your insights.
Raper: Well, not everyone. [Laughs]
Rumpus: What’s the best discovery you’ve made in your ninety-four years?
Rumpus: Well, in life.
Raper: There’s so many good things about my life. Family is an extremely important one. I love being a mother and having the family that I have, but more in the realm of discovery I think it was so interesting figuring out how more than twenty thousand different mating types could be generated and learning that fungi are really more like animals than plants. I like knowing that I played a part in finding that out.
Rumpus: Most people certainly can’t say that.
Raper: Maybe not, but we all discover our own things. I think we all just have to keep kicking—which I’m trying to do.