Luella Agnes Owen

08-SEP-1852 - 31-MAY-1932

Luella Agnes Owen around 1872. Public Domain.

Luella Agnes Owen was a speleologist and geologist and explored caves in Missouri. She is famous for her book Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills from 1898. Her father was a lawyer, her mother the child of a wealthy businessman. She was one of three sister which became famous for their scientific work, in a century when scientists were generally men. Her older sister Mary Alicia Owen was a folklorist and her younger sister Juliette Amelia Owen was an ornithologist and botanist.

St. Joseph was both frontier town and one of the last civilized places before the American West began. When Luella was 6 years old the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad reached the town and one year later the first rider of the Pony Express departed. And there was the French and Southern heritage. This gave them the cultural background and frontier independence to choose a career commonly unthinkable for women at that time. Luella and her spinster sisters are objects of fascination even one hundred years later. Luella was often described as brainy, brusque, and brave.

Luella became fascinated with shells and fossils which turned up as the road was graded in front of her first home at the age of five. Where the fascination for caves came from is unclear, St. Joseph has no caves. Probably she got in contact with caves visiting her relatives in Kentucky or Virginia. Luella attended a local private school before the Civil War. during the war years the sisters were educated at home. After the war, Luella attended St. Joseph High School and graduated as the class valedictorian in 1872. But she did not attend college, she studied geology on her own.

Here caving career started in 1873, when she met Horace Carter Hover, a Presbyterian minister from Kansas City. Together they went caving in the surroundings. Later she explored caves around southern Missouri, the Black Hills, and Yellowstone. Her fearless attitude encouraged male cavers to take her along with them. Her mentors encouraged her to publish her research in foreign and American journals. Her first articles were published under an unknown pseudonym. The first article published under her own name was Cavernes Americaines in Spelunca, the bulletin of the French Societé de Spelelogie in 1896. She was at that time the only female Membre titulaire de la Société de Spéléologie. In 1898 she published her famous book about caves and her last paper of the topic.

This was not the end of her geologic studies, but in later years she concentrated on the Pleistocene loess deposits around the Missouri River bluffs. She publishes numerous papers on the topic and was printed in international magazines. She became a fellow of the American Geographical Society and went on a one year expedition with the famous explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary. She and her sisters were remarkable for their scientific accomplishments. They received an entry in the 1921 Centennial History of Missouri. They were the subject of several biographies and Luella was the subject of a children's book named Going Where No Lady Had Gone Before.


08-SEP-1852 born in Saint Joseph, Buchanan County, Missouri, USA.
1872 graduated St. Joseph High School as valedictorian.
1873 met Horace Carter Hover, a Presbyterian minister from Kansas City, went caving in the area.
1896 first article published.
1898 book Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills published.
1898 last scientific paper on caves published.
1900 year-long trip around the world as a working member of the American Geographic Society with Admiral Robert E. Peary.
31-MAY-1932 died of pneumonia in Saint Joseph, Buchanan County, Missouri, USA.