Though women have always had inquiring minds, they have often had to fight harder than their male contemporaries for access to education and equal recognition. The women profiled below never shied away from that fight, and their achievements are all the more impressive because of it.
Women in the UK first went to university in 1868, when nine women were admitted to the University of London. However, they did not receive degrees for passing their exams; instead they were rewarded with a ‘certificate of proficiency’. It would be another ten years before the first degrees were awarded to women, again by the University of London.
Around the same time as the University of London’s first female students, Girton College was founded just outside Cambridge in 1869 by two women, Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon, the first residential college for women in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, across the border in Scotland, the Edinburgh Seven were blazing a trail of their own. In 1869, they became the first group of matriculated undergraduate female students at any British university, studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Though they lost the fight to qualify as doctors, their campaign gained national attention and a tribe of supporters, including Charles Darwin! Eventually, legislation was passed to ensure that women could study at university in 1877.
Still, academia was a man’s world at this time, and continued to be so for a long time. Instead of accepting that their careers would be limited, these women persevered, and pursued their passions. Read on to find out about these certified rock stars.
1. Etheldred Benett: The Collector
Name: Etheldred Benett
Interests and Skills: The Middle Cretaceous Period; Upper Greensand in the Vale of Wardour
Biography: The unusually named Etheldred Benett came late to the field of geology, collecting fossils from around the age of 33. Unmarried and independently wealthy, Benett lived with her sister Anna Maria, a keen amateur botanist, at Norton House in Norton Bavant; this independence allowed her to build her collection without the restrictions many of her peers faced, constrained by money or matrimony. One of Benett’s champions was her sister-in-law’s half-brother, the botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert, also a fossil collector. Lambert was the founder of the Linnean Society, dedicated to studying natural history; a member of the Royal Society; and an early member of the Geological Society – all things Etheldred could never be because of her gender.
Despite being limited by her gender, her location in rural Wiltshire, family troubles, and personal illness, Etheldred cultivated relationships with leading geologists, and it is through the work of these men that we get most references to hers. In addition to contributing to Gideon Mantell’s work on stratigraphy, she also built a relationship with the Sowerby family, which included generations of naturalists, botanists, zoologists, among others. 41 specimens in James Sowerby’s Mineral Conchology came from Benett’s collection, the second-highest number of contributions in the work.
The name ‘Etheldred’, just one letter away from the male name ‘Ethelred’, caused Benett to be mistaken for a man throughout her life. After viewing some of her collection, Tsar Nicholas I granted her a Doctorate of Civil Law from the University of Petersburg, and the Imperial Natural History Society of Moscow awarded her membership under the misnomer ‘Master Etheldredus Benett’ in 1836. On these mistakes, Benett noted that “scientific people, in general, have a very low opinion of the abilities of my sex”.
Contribution and Recognition: Benett owned one of the largest and most diverse collections of her time, with over 1,500 specimens. Many visitors came to her home to view the collection, which included many rare and well-preserved specimens, some of which were the first of their kind to be illustrated and described.
After her death, the collection was sold and distributed to museums including the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Leeds City Museum, and some made their way to St Petersburg. Benett’s collection contained examples of microfossils, and she was one of the earliest geologists to sieve for these. She also coined modern names and classifications of some fossils, including fossil sponges which she named ‘polypothecia’; ammonites she called ‘drepanites’; and found the first fossil trigoniids with protected salt anatomy, or saltwater clams.
Through extensive correspondence with fellow geologists, Benett contributed significantly to the field of geology; for example, her exchanges with Gideon Mantell created an understanding of the Lower Cretaceous sedimentary rocks of Southern England. In 1819, she commissioned a look at a stratigraphic section of the Upper Chicksgrove quarry near Tisbury, which she called “the measure of different beds of stone in Chicksgrove Quarry in the Parish of Tisbury”. This work was published by James Sowerby without her knowledge, and Benett later contradicted some of Sowerby’s conclusions based on her own research. She also published her own work, a monograph in 1831 which contained many of her drawings and sketches of mollusca and sponges, establishing her as a pioneer of biostratigraphy.
Her fellows respected her greatly. Mantell described her as “a lady of great talent and indefatigable research”, while the Sowerbys noted that her “labours in the pursuit of geological information have been as useful as they have been incessant. Though she could never be a member, the Geological Society of London selected her as the emblem for their 2005 conference, ‘The Role of Women in the History of Geology’.
2. Maria Graham: The Traveller
Name: Maria Graham (née Dundas), Lady Callcott
Interests and Skills: Travel writing
Biography: Maria’s father, a post-captain in the Royal Navy, took her to Bombay when he accepted a post with the British East India Company, when Maria was 23. On the voyage over she met and fell in love with her first husband, another naval officer, and they were married in India. After spending two years in India, the Grahams returned to England, and Maria published two books on her time there; she also lived in Italy while her husband was at sea, and published another book about Italian life.
She later accompanied her husband aboard the HMS Doris on its way to Chile, when tragedy struck; her husband died of fever onboard the ship. Instead of giving in to her grief, Maria bucked expectations by staying in Chile on her own, turning her back on the English colony and instead living among the Chilean people.
When the time came to return to England, Maria stopped in Brazil on the way home and became tutor to Princess Maria, later Queen of Portugal. She paused in London long enough to hand over her manuscripts and returned to Brazil immediately. It was not a long-standing arrangement, as Maria was later ejected from the palace for trying to ‘Anglicise’ the princess.
On her permanent return to London, Maria lived in an artistic quarter of the city, bonding with intellectuals and artists alike, and became a keen illustrator. In 1827, she married Royal Academy painter Augustus Wall Callcott, and later became Lady Callcott.
In 1831, Maria became disabled due to a ruptured blood vessel, but continued to write, including a children’s book, Little Arthur’s History of England. She is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.
Contribution and Recognition: It was in Chile that Maria made her main contribution to geology, when she witnessed a major earthquake in 1822. She was one of the first Western Europeans to witness and document shifting tectonic plates, writing: “At Valparaiso, the beach is raised about three feet, and some of the rocks are exposed.” When she published her observations in 1824 in the Transactions of the Geological Society, it was the first article written by a woman to appear.
Maria’s article was the main source used by Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology (1830) as it supported his ‘Vulcanist’ theory, that earthquakes could cause the elevation of landmasses. George Bellas Greenough, another geologist, disagreed with this theory, but instead of directly challenging Lyell, he instead tried to discredit the theory by questioning Maria’s reliability as a witness.
Furious at Greenough’s implication that a woman could not have been calm enough in a disaster to accurately record events, she published a rebuttal in her own pamphlet, which incited acrimonious debate of the subject. Her husband and brother both offered to duel Greenough to defend her honour, but Maria allegedly replied: “Be quiet, both of you, I am quite capable of fighting my own battles, and intend to do it.” Maria was vindicated when Charles Darwin, aboard the Beagle, witnessed similar effects during another Chilean earthquake in 1836.
In 2008, Maria was recognised for her services to Chile. The country paid for the restoration of her tombstone, and it was inscribed with the words: ‘a friend to the nation of Chile’.
3. Charlotte Murchison: The Advocate
Name: Charlotte Murchison (née Hugonin)
Interests and Skills: Continental fossils; sketching geological features
Biography: When Charlotte Hugonin met her husband, Roderick Murchison was a cavalry officer in the Dragoons. Eventually, he would become a respected geologist, but not without the help of his dedicated wife. It was Charlotte that encouraged Roderick to give up his commission with the Dragoons and tutored him in natural history. On their honeymoon, Charlotte spent her time sketching and fossil hunting, while her husband surveyed the surroundings. Also on this trip, Charlotte contracted malarial fever in Italy, which would bother her for the rest of her life.
Over the course of their travels, Charlotte found and purchased fossils to grow her personal collection, which was later studied and published in the works of James de Carle Sowerby and William Buckland.
After the honeymoon, Roderick and Charlotte lived in Barnard Castle at 21 Galgate, and Roderick temporarily gave up his studies, though Charlotte continued. In 1824, the couple moved to London to allow Roderick to attend geological lectures. After her mother’s death, Charlotte used her substantial inheritance to purchase a house in Belgravia. The parties the couple would throw here were popular with scientists and politicians alike.
Though her health deteriorated in the 1860s, Charlotte continued to support her husband’s work. Roderick Murchison’s contributions to the field of geology were substantial, and it is widely accepted that, without his wife’s significant influence and constant support, he would not have reached the heights he did. His first paper to the Geology Society is considered to be a result of fieldwork conducted with his wife.
Charlotte’s lifelong friend, the scientist Mary Somerville, said that Charlotte was “an amiable accomplished woman, [who] drew prettily and – what was rare at the time – she had studied science, especially geology, and it was chiefly owing to her example that her husband turned his mind to those pursuits in which he afterwards obtained such distinction.”
Contribution and Recognition: If the name Charlotte Murchison sounds familiar, it might be from the 2020 film Ammonite, which featured a fictionalised Murchison alongside Mary Anning. Though there is no evidence that the two were in a relationship, Murchison and Anning did go fossil hunting together in Anning’s native Lyme Regis. In the film, Murchison is portrayed as much younger than Anning, but in fact, she was 11 years older than her colleague.
Murchison had a docile reputation among her peers; Benjamin Disraeli described her as the ‘silent wife’ of her famous husband, and Charles Lyell called her ‘timid’. Despite this, Murchison’s actions were far from meek. When Lyell was lecturing at King’s College London, women were not allowed to attend. Murchison, with her friend Mary Somerville, continued to attend them anyway, and shortly afterwards Lyell opened his lectures to both men and women.
4. Mary Buckland: The Sketcher
Name: Mary Buckland (née Morland)
Interests and Skills: Scientific illustration
Biography: Mary Morland was born in Sheepstead House, Abingdon, in 1797. After losing her mother at a young age, Mary went to live with Sir Christopher Pegge, Regius Professor of Anatomy at Oxford, and remained there for much of her childhood. As well as anatomy, Pegge also lectured in geology and mineralogy, and encouraged Mary’s scientific pursuits. After his death, Pegge bequeathed Mary his mineral cabinets, fossil collection, and all of his books on natural history as “a mark of my esteem and regard of her”.
Though she had no formal training, Mary began producing illustrations and providing specimens for the naturalist Georges Cuvier and geologist William Conybeare when she was just a teenager, and she later married Professor of Mineralogy and Geology at Oxford, William Buckland. According to their daughter, the pair met on a train and struck up a conversation, as they both had the same book by Cuvier. As they talked, Mary’s reputation preceded her, and Buckland exclaimed “You must be Miss Morland, to whom I am about to deliver a letter of introduction.” Their wedding tour of the continent lasted nearly a year, and the couple spent time with other natural scientists like Cuvier and Alexander von Humboldt.
Mary was dedicated to education, not only of her own children but also in local villages. In later life, she taught at a school in Islip, Oxfordshire, near the family home, and by the time her son Frank was four, he could identify the vertebrae of an ichthyosaurus due to exposure to his parents’ extensive collection.
Contribution and Recognition: Although Buckland disapproved of women engaging publicly in scientific pursuits, he relied on his wife’s knowledge and proof-reading abilities to support his lectures, and she frequently cooperated in his experiments. Mary rarely received public credit from her husband, but their son, Frank, noted that his mother often gave Buckland’s works ‘a polish which added not a little to their merit.’ When her husband was committed to an asylum, she continued his work and her own studies, collecting marine zoophytes and sponges until her death.
Mary’s work as an illustrator can be seen in her husband’s Reliquaie diluvianae and Geology and Mineralogy, as well an in work by William Conybeare and John William Dawson. She was also accomplished at modelling and mending fossils, and many of her reconstructions can be seen at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
5. Mary Anning: The First Lady of Fossils
Name: Mary Anning
Interests and Skills: Fossil collection on the Jurassic Coast
Biography: Though her father was a carpenter by profession, he taught Mary and her brother Joseph how to collect fossils, and often sold his finds to tourists. Mary Anning had little formal education, but inspired by her father’s fossil-hunting, she taught herself geology and anatomy, and soon became something of a tourist attraction for her hometown of Lyme Regis. Tourists would flock to see Mary and buy her fossils, leading to some speculation that she inspired the tongue-twister ‘She Sells Seashells’ (though there is no formal evidence of this).
Anning’s first major find was an ichthyosaur, discovered by her and her brother in two sections in 1811 and 1812. This was the first example of the creature to come to the attention of London scientists, and it was described in a paper by Everard Home that was read before the Royal Society in 1814.
Her second big discovery was a 9ft long animal with a small head and a long neck. To begin with, the creature was considered so strange that there were rumours it was fake, and it was described at the Geological Society’s meeting on 20 February 1824, and it was recognised by William Conybeare as a plesiosaurus, all but complete. Anning was not invited to attend and discuss her own find, and the scientific community were hesitant to recognise her work formally, though they would often buy her finds.
In 1824, Lady Harriet Silvester visited Lyme Regis, and noted it was “a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed”, so that “clever men” acknowledged that Mary understood more of geology than “anyone else in this kingdom.”
A third significant find was made in 1828, when Anning uncovered remains with a tail and wings – the dinosaur that we know today as a pterodactyl. This was the first pterosaur discovered outside of Germany. Less glamorously, Anning was also a pioneer in the study of coprolites, otherwise known as fossilised poo.
Eventually, in the 1840s, the large fossil finds, and the income they produced, all but dried up. However, for the last decade of her life, Mary received three different annuities and subscriptions from the scientific community, testament to her respect in her field. These grants supported her until her death at the age of 47 from breast cancer. She is buried in the parish churchyard of St Michael the Archangel, which also features a window dedicated to Anning.
Contribution and Recognition: Anning’s finds were significant for the field, even if they were initially distrusted. Her childhood friend and famous geologist Henry De la Beche was inspired by Anning to paint Duria Antiquior – A More Ancient Dorset in 1830. He sold prints of his painting to raise money for an ailing Mary. Thomas Hawkins was inspired by Anning’s plesiosaurus in his Book of the Great Sea Dragons, 1840.
A more recent example of Anning’s inspirational quality is the 2020 film Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet as Anning and Saoirse Ronan as a fictionalised version of Anning’s friend and fellow geologist Charlotte Murchison. London’s Natural History Museum showcases many of Anning’s finds, including her ichthyosaur, plesiosaur, and pterosaur.
6. Maria Gordon: The Pioneer
Name: Dame Maria Gordon (née Ogilvie)
Interests and Skills: Fossil corals
Biography: Maria Ogilvie Gordon came from a scientific family – her eldest brother, Francis, was a scientist and director of the London Science Museum – but her first love was music. Initially, Maria attended the Merchant Company Schools’ Ladies College in Edinburgh, then travelled to London to study music. Once there, Maria decided to instead pursue a career in science. She graduated from University College London in 1890 with a gold medal, with a BSc in geology, botany, and zoology.
In 1891, Maria was invited on a 5-week trip to the Dolomites by geologist Baron Ferdinand von Richtofen, and her interest shifted from zoology to geology. For two summers she travelled, instructing local collectors to record and describe their finds. She would later comment that her unsupervised fieldwork was a ‘serious handicap’, but Maria persevered.
While in Germany in 1891, she tried to continue her studies at the University of Berlin, but she was refused entry. At the University of Munich, she was permitted to continue her research as a private person, but was not allowed into lecture halls. Instead, she would sit in a separate room with the doors half-open, eavesdropping on the academia she was unable to officially partake in.
From 1900 to 1914, Maria, now Gordon, continued her exploration of the Dolomites, collecting specimens, writing papers, and preparing a comprehensive study of the area’s geology. It was almost ready for publication. But disaster struck in 1914 with the outbreak of World War One. Gordon was forced to abandon her manuscript and return home to Britain. She returned to Munich in 1920 to retrieve the manuscript, but it had disappeared. Instead of giving up, Maria started again, rewriting the manuscript.
Contribution and Recognition: Maria achieved a number of ‘firsts’ in her life. She gained the first female Doctor of Science degree in the UK in 1893, from University College London. She was also one of the first two women to obtain a PhD in Munich, with Agnes Kelly, receiving distinction in geology, palaeontology, and zoology.
Her legacy in Munich is commemorated with the Maria-Ogilvie-Gordon-Raum at the library of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. The room houses the map collection of the geology department. She also received the Lyell medal from the London Geological society, and her biographer described her as “probably the most productive woman field geologist of any country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
In 1893, Maria published some of her results in the article, ‘Contributions to the geology of the Wengen and St Cassian Strata in southern Tyrol’ in the Geological Society’s quarterly journal. This work provided contributions to the poorly understood stratigraphic record of the mountains, describing the ecology of various fossil corals. She described 345 species of mollusca and corals of the Wengen and St Cassian Formations – today, there are 1,400 recognised species.
Her extensive work on the Dolomites was published in 1927 to great praise in the Journal Nature, and she also produced two visitors’ guidebooks, the first examples of modern geological guidebooks for the region. In all, she wrote more than 30 papers on her findings in South Tyrol, some of which were considered seminal works. In 2000, a new fossilised fern genus discovered in the Dolomites, where Maria had spent so much of her time, was named Gordonopteris Iorigae in her honour.
On top of her contributions to geology, Maria was politically active in the post-World War One negotiations at the Council for the Representation of Women in the League of Nations. She even contested the parliamentary seat of Hastings in the 1923 General Election for the Liberal Party. Though only coming second, she pushed the Labour candidate into third place. She had prominent positions in national and international women’s societies, and in 1935 she received a DBE for her work for the welfare of women.
7. Gertrude Elles: The Teacher
Name: Gertrude Elles
Interests and Skills: Field geology; stratigraphy; palaeontology; Lower Palaeozoic strata
Gertrude Elles on the Isle of Man in 1893.
Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, SGWC 02/02/11.
Biography: Gertrude Elles thrived at university. She received first class honours in the Natural Science Tripos form Newnham College, Cambridge, although the university did not give women degrees at this time. Eventually, a decade later, an agreement was made with Trinity College, Dublin. Approximately 720 women, known as “steamboat ladies”, travelled to Dublin to receive their degrees ad eundem from the university.
While at Newnham College, Elles was an active member of the Sedgwick Club, the university’s official geological society, and was involved in running it. She also met friend and collaborator Ethel Wood at university, with whom she published the monograph British Graptolites, edited by Professor Charles Lapworth.
Elles was one of the earliest geologists to look not just at individual specimens, but at the concept of communities of organisms. This pioneering work gained her much recognition, and later she became the first woman to be awarded a readership position at Cambridge, in 1924.
From there, she became Vice Principal of Newnham College in 1930, and then became Reader Emeritus in 1938. She supervised many notable students, including the geologists and palaeontologists Dorothy Hill, Betty Ripper, and Oliver Bulman. One of her students would later describe her as a “very stimulating teacher” who was “in great demand”, known for her “marvellously clear and very, very fierce.”
She became increasingly deaf in the last three decades of her life, and returned to her native Scotland, dying in 1960.
Contribution and Recognition: The much-celebrated geologist gained international recognition for her research on fossil graptolites and their distribution throughout Ordovician and Silurian marine strata, which allowed accurate global correlation and subdivision of the Lower Palaeozoic.
Elles was awarded the Lyell Fund from the Geological Society of London in 1900, “as an acknowledgement of the value of her contribution to the study of Graptolites and the rocks in which they occur, and to encourage her in further research.” However, though she was awarded the fund, women were banned from Geological Society meetings, so it was collected on her behalf by her Cambridge professor, Thomas McKenny Hughes.
Later, in 1919, Elles was among the first eight women to be elected as Fellows of the Geological Society in 1919, along with her college friend Ethel Wood, and in the same year was awarded the society’s Murchison Medal. She was also selected as President of the British Association in 1923. Outside of her scientific studies, she received an MBE in 1920 in recognition of her services as a Red Cross commandant during the First World War.
8. Rachel MacRobert: The Rebel
Name: Lady Rachel Workman MacRobert
Interests and Skills: Glacial geomorphology; petrology; mineralogy; feminism
Biography: Rachel Workman was born to a wealthy New England family in Worcester, Massachusetts. When she was five, her family moved to Dresden to improve her father’s ailing health, and he was indeed invigorated. Her parents took up cycling and mountaineering and would spend long periods away from their children. Unfortunately, while living in Germany, her brother Siegfried died, and the age of nine Rachel was sent to England to attend Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
Her mother, Fanny Workman, was a particularly interesting figure, and clearly influenced her daughter despite spending long periods apart. A geographer and mountaineer, she travelled extensively in the Himalayas, setting several women’s records for climbing. She also campaigned for women’s rights, and often displayed her fighting spirit. Despite lecturing for the Royal Geographical Society for over a year, she was not allowed to deliver her research to them. Undeterred, she forced her way in to deliver her research paper on Indian glaciers in 1905. Still, women were not officially admitted until 1913.
Rachel later attended Royal Holloway College, which was founded to provide women with a university education. She spent a year studying at the University of Edinburgh, graduated with second class honours in geology, and was the first woman to attend the Royal School of Mines from 1909 to 1912. She published her first academic paper, Calcite as a Primary Constituent of Igneous Rocks in the Geological Magazine, in the year of her graduation, 1911.
Proving that she was her mother’s daughter, Rachel was almost removed from the Geological Society Annual General Meeting in 1913. She later wrote:
“An attempt was made to eject me. The Secretary rushed up and said I was not a Fellow, so I explained this was through no fault of mine but the Society’s and waved him aside and marched in […] They need not try any tricks with me because I am a woman, I have always gone to the Annual Meetings and intend to do so if in London!”
Rachel also documented the discrimination she faced at university lectures and on fieldwork. On an expedition to Lapland and northern Sweden, she wrote: “I had to overcome the usual annoyance men have when women are about on scientific expeditions”. While attending a lecture at the Royal School of Mines, she noted that she had “created a sensation”, and wrote: “If I hear any more I shall require to see the Statutes which exclude women. Of course there are none, and it simply has not occurred before!”
She met her husband, Sir Alexander MacRobert, in 1909, and they were married in 1911. They had three sons together, and Rachel cared for them mostly alone while her husband was in India, and even founded a herd of Friesian dairy cattle to produce better milk for sometimes sickly sons. Throughout, she continued her research, mainly on the Scottish border, and carried on publishing her work.
Contribution and Recognition: Rachel became a Fellow of the Geological Society of Stockholm before becoming one of the first female Fellows of the London Geological Society. Dubious about the reasons for women’s admittance, she wrote: “It is obvious why they were admitted at this juncture. They are badly needing additional subscriptions so the female subscriber has a financial value if none other. Poor downtrodden race!”
Though she played a key role in the formal integration of women as Fellows of the Geological Society, she was not particularly impressed with the original female intake, believing most of them to merely be “wives” – perhaps this explains why Rachel preferred to work alone. She was also elected a life fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1938.
Like her mother, Rachel campaigned for women’s rights. She actively opposed the male-dominated scientific community, attending meetings and conferences despite opposition to her gender. She was also known the host luncheon parties for suffragette coordinators, and justified violent suffragette protests, citing that “girls have no sort of life under present social condition and the wickedness of men at large”.
Rachel was devoted to her sons and is in fact, best known not for her geological research, but for founding the MacRobert Trust after losing all three of her sons in the Second World War. She donated £25,000 to the RAF to fund a bomber named the ‘MacRobert’s Reply’, for military use in the war effort. Subsequently, she donated four more aircraft, one named after each of her sons, and one after her. The Trust is still active today, supporting charitable causes and maintaining the MacRobert estate in Aberdeenshire.