A “Patchwork Quilt” Career: Remembering Lorna Petty Harrell (1947-2022)

by Adam Hinterthuer

Lorna Petty on a training cruise in Cape Hatteras, circa 1971.

In late April of this year – on Earth Day, to be exact – CFL alumna, Lorna Petty Harrell passed away. Lorna earned her master’s degree in zoology in 1972 at what was then referred to as the Laboratory of Limnology. She was the first female graduate student in John Magnuson’s lab and while in Madison, did her research on the impacts of the power plant outfall on bluegill populations in Lake Monona – a project that won her an award for the best student paper at the American Fisheries Society conference.

In a 1998 article she wrote in the CFL newsletter, Lorna called her career a “patchwork quilt” and spoke eloquently and honestly about her journey.

“In July, 1970, I entered the graduate program at the Laboratory of Limnology where I became the first woman grad student in many years. Because of my innocent intrusion into this male domain, I became an object of curiosity and, at times, considered myself a social pariah. In short, my first year at UW-Madison was hard and lonely.

At the same time, my adviser, John Magnuson, was as determined as I that I succeed, and he generated funds, ideas and perpetual challenges to assure that I did. … My second year in Madison was one of the best in my life. I felt accepted for who I was, and my research began to coalesce, thanks to a lot of field help and moral support from many.”

Lorna went on to a long career in freshwater research and conservation, working in high-level positions for environmental consulting firms, soil and water conservation districts and universities in northern Kentucky and southern Ohio. It was a career she fought hard for, as being the only woman working in a field dominated by men and the expectations of a “woman’s role” in it, threw many obstacles in her path.

“As I reflect on obstacles I’ve overcome and mistakes I’ve made in piecing it all together,” she wrote, “I know the design isn’t perfect but at least it’s mine.”

We are saddened by her passing and honored that the “Limnology Lab” here at UW-Madison was part of her journey. And we are thankful that she left behind a legacy and a story that shows us both how far we have come in the freshwater sciences and how far we still have to go.