In the 18th and 19th centuries women’s access to science was limited, and science was usually a ‘hobby’ for intelligent wealthy women. It was common for male scientists to have women assistants, often their own wives and daughters. But by the first half of the 20th century, a third of British palaeobotanists working on Carboniferous plants were women. The most notable were Margaret Benson, Emily Dix, and Marie Stopes.
Emily Dix was born on 21 May 1904 in Penclawdd, in the beautiful area of the Gower Peninsula. At age 18, she gained the Central Welsh Board Higher Certificate in history, botany and geography, with distinctions in both history and botany. In 1925, she graduated with first class honours in Geology at the University College Swansea. After graduation, Emily continued at Swansea to research the geology of the western part of the South Wales Coalfield. Her work was supervised by Arthur E. Trueman, Professor of Geology at Swansea, and a pioneer in developing stratigraphical theory. Trueman realized that the only accurate way to use fossils for correlation was to divide the stratigraphical succession into biozones defined exclusively by the assemblages of species present, independently of the lithology in which they were found. Trueman’s main interest were non-marine bivalves, so Emily’s early work was on the non-marine bivalves of the South Wales Coalfield.
Emily initially studied all aspects of the Late Carboniferous biotas in South Wales, but soon, she realized that plant fossils also had considerable biostratigraphical potential. Although, Paul Bertrand developed macrofloral biozones for the French coalfields in 1914, Emily used stratigraphical range charts for the first time in paleobotany recognising the need to separate biostratigraphy from lithostratigraphy. In 1926 Emily was awarded an MSc based on her Gwendraeth Valley work: ‘The Palaeontology of the Lower Coal Series of Carmarthen and the Correlation of the Coal Measures in the Western Portion of the South Wales Coalfield’. In 1929 she was elected a fellow of the Geological Society, and a year later she was appointed Lecturer in Palaeontology at Bedford College in London, a position that she held for the rest of her working life. The same year, she attended the International Botanical Congress in Cambridge where she met W. Gothan, P. Bertrand, W. J. Jongmans and A. Renier, leaders in Upper Carboniferous palaeobotany at the time. Five years later, she attended the Second International Carboniferous Congress in Heerlen (The Netherlands) and she delivered papers on Carboniferous biostratigraphy. In 1936, Emily was invited to become the only female on an 11-man discussion group of the British Association for the Advancement of Science on Coal Measures correlation. She was clearly at the international forefront of the field.
At the start of the World War II, she was evacuated to Cambridge, along with the rest of Bedford College Geology Department. She lost a lot of valuable literature and other records in a London Blitz in May 1941. Fortunately, much of her collection of fossils survived.
At the end of the war, Emily suffered a mental breakdown. She was moved to a mental hospital run by the Quakers in the City of York. That was the end of her scientific career. She died in Swansea on 31 December 1972.
It was not until the late 1970s that her techniques were used again in Britain. Elsewhere in Europe, her approaches were adopted and can be seen in many of the papers presented at the International Carboniferous Congresses held at Heerlen during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Burek, C. V. & Cleal, C. J. (2005) The life and work of Emily Dix (1904-1972). In: Bowden, A. J., Burek, C. V. & Wilding, R (ed.) History of palaeobotany: selected essays. Geological Society of London, Special Publication, 241, 181-196
Burek, C. V. (2005). Emily Dix, palaeobotanist – a promising career cut short. Geology Today, 21(4), 144-145