Mary Jane Rathbun (1860-1943) was born in Buffalo, New York. Educated in the public schools of Buffalo, she became interested in zoology through her brother Richard. A staff member of the United States Fish Commission (and later an assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution), Richard Rathbun introduced his sister to the Commission and its work at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. She worked for the Fish Commission, on a voluntary basis, during the summers from 1881 to 1884. In 1884, she was appointed to a salaried position as clerk with the Fish Commission, where she remained until 1886, when she joined the staff of the United States National Museum (USNM) as copyist in the Department of Marine Invertebrates. Rathbun was promoted to aid in 1893, second assistant curator in 1894, and assistant curator in 1907. She resigned in 1914 so that her salary could be used to hire another assistant curator. After her resignation, she was given the honorary title associate in zoology and continued her work on the invertebrate collections in the USNM. In 1916, Rathbun received an honorary M.A. degree from the University of Pittsburgh and the following year received an honorary doctorate from the George Washington University.
Rathbun's primary zoological interest was the study of crustacea, particularly the crabs, both recent and fossil. Her bibliography numbered 158 titles, with her most important works being four monographs on the grapsoid, spider, cancroid, and oxystomatous crabs of America, published as Bulletins of the United States National Museum between 1918 and 1939.