The Great Female Scientists of the Victorian Era

Skull of an ichthyosaur painted with fossil sepia by Elizabeth Philpot.

Women have played  various and extensive roles in the history of geology. Unfortunately, their contribution has not been widely recognised by the public and the history of geosciences has largely been interpreted as a history of male scientists.

In the Victorian times there was the common assumption that the female brain was too fragile to cope with mathematics, or science in general. In a letter from March 1860, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote to Charles Lyell: “Five-sixths of women will stop in the doll stage of evolution, to be the stronghold of parsonism, the drag on civilisation, the degradation of every important pursuit in which they mix themselves – intrigues in politics and friponnes in science.” Lyell, one of the most famous geologist of his time, was married to Mary Horner, daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner, and one of the many female contributors to geology in the early nineteenth century in the United Kingdom. A list that also includes Mary Anning, Barbara Hastings, Etheldred Bennet, the Philpot sisters, Mary Buckland née Morland, Charlotte Murchinson, Elizabeth Cobbold, Mary Buckland née Morland, Charlotte Murchinson, Mary Sommerville, Jane Marcet, Delvalle Lowry, and Arabella Buckley. Those women formed a framework of assistants, secretaries, collectors, field geologists, illustrators, and as popularizers of science.

Duria Antiquior famous watercolor by the geologist Henry de la Beche based on fossils found by Mary Anning. From Wikimedia Commons.

The nineteen century was the “golden age” of Geology. The Industrial Revolution ushered a period of canal digging and major quarrying operations for building stone. These activities exposed sedimentary strata and fossils. The concept of an ancient Earth became part of the public understanding and Literature influenced the pervasiveness of geological thinking. The most popular aspect of geology was the collecting of fossils and minerals and the nineteenth-century geology, often perceived as the sport of gentlemen,was in fact, “reliant on all classes”. Due to the informal character of the early British geology, women were free to take part in collecting fossils and mineral specimens, and they were allowed to attend lectures, but they were still barred from membership in scientific societies. Women interested in geology could attend the meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). Also, the public lectures at the Royal Institution were very popular among educated women. About the BAAS meeting at York (1831), Charles Lyell wrote: “A hundred and fifty ladies, and many of rank, at the evening discussion, must also have ‘popularised’ scientific pursuits”.

William Whewell, contrary to some other colleagues, welcomed scientific women to the third meeting of the British Association in 1834. In an invitation addressed to Mary Somerville, he wrote: “I expect Mrs. Buckland and Mrs. Murchinson and several other ladies…”

Autograph letter about the discovery of plesiosaurus, by Mary Anning. From original manuscripts held at the Natural History Museum, London. © The Natural History Museum, London

Early female scientists were often born into influential families, like Grace Milne, the eldest child of Louis Falconer and sister of the eminent botanist and palaeontologist, Hugh Falconer; or Mary Lyell, the daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner. Althought Barbara Hastings (1810-1858) and Etheldred Benett (1776–1845) published their works independently, the prevailing pattern was formed by women who have worked in the field but acted as assistants to father, husband, brother, or other male geologist that were no relatives. In these cases, the publication of their findings was not part of accepted females activy, and their contribution is often completely concealed under the name of someone else. Even Lyell wrote about the iniquity of the situation in a letter to his future wife, Mary Horner: “Had our friend Mrs. Somerville been married to La Place, or some mathematician, we should never have hear of her work. She would have merged it in her husband’s, and passed it off as his.” 

Although she was not formally published, Etheldred Benett wrote several manuscripts, which are now in the collections of the Geological Society of London. She was a lady, a member of the landed gentry, and unlike Mary Anning, Etheldred Bennet was in a very confortable financial circumstances. She described the stratigraphic and geographic distribution of fossils of Wiltshire, and for more than 30 years she was frequently acknowledged in the publications of palaeontologist and geologist throughout Europe.

Portrait of Barbara Rawdon Hastings (née Yelverton), Marchioness of Hastings. From Wikimedia Commons

Barbara Rawdon (née Yelverton) Hastings (1810–1858), 20th Baroness Grey de Ruthyn and Marchioness of Hastings was known as a fossil collector and a “lady-geologist” . She is also well known for the “Hastings Collection,” consisting of several thousand fossil specimens from England and Europe. She also studied the stratigraphy of England and published her findings in “Description géologique des falaises d’Hordle, et sur la côte de Hampshire, en Angleterre” (Hastings, 1851–52) and “On the tertiary beds of Hordwell, Hampshire” (Hastings, 1853).

The Philpot sisters (Margaret, ?–1845; Mary, 1773?–1838; Elizabeth, 1780–1857) were also well know for their fossil collection and their friendship with Mary Anning. They came from educated, middle-class London, and after their parents dead, they moved to Lymes Regis and amassed an important collection of fossils. Elizabeth maintained correspondences with William Buckland, William Conybeare, Henry De la Beche, Richard Owen, James Sowery and Louis Agassiz. About Elizabeth, Agassiz wrote: “I have the pleasure to recognize publicly the service, that she rendered to palaeontology and specially to fossil ichtyology, in collecting with much ardour the fossil relicts in the Lias of Lyme Regis.”

Mary Horner Lyell (1808-1873) British geologist. Daughter of geologist Professor Leonard Horner, wife of Sir Charles Lyell.

In the other group we could find those women who worked with their husbands. The most prominent of these women were Mary (née Moreland) Buckland (1797–1857), wife of Rev. William Buckland; Mary Ann (née Woodhouse) Mantell (1795–1869), wife of Dr. Gideon Mantell; Charlotte (née Hugonin) Murchison (1789–1869) wife of Sir Roderick Murchison; and Mary Elizabeth (née Horner) Lyell (1808–1873), wife of Sir Charles Lyell (Davis, 2009).

Mary Morland (1797–1857) illustrated some of George Cuvier’s work before she became Mrs William Buckland. She made models of fossils for the Oxford museum and repaired broken fossils. She assisted her husband by taking notes of his observations and illustrating his work. After the death of her husband, she continued working on marine zoophytes.

Charlotte Murchinson (1789–1869) was a strong influence for her husband and introduced him in the world of geology. She accompanied him on excursions and spent time sketching the  landscape and outcrops and collecting Jurassic fossil specimens from the beaches.

Mary Mantell and the lithographed of an Iguanodon teeth.

Mary Mantell (1795–1869) discovered the teeth of Iguanodon, which led to her husband’s publication of an important paper announcing the discovery of a new giant reptile (Creese and Creese, 1994). She also made the illustration of Mantell’s work: “Fossils of the South Downs: or Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex”. Mary Mantell left her husband in 1839 and the children remained with their father as was customary.

Mary Lyell (1808–1873) was daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner. She read both French and German fluently and translated scientific papers for her husband and managed his correspondence. She later specialized in conchology and regularly attended meetings of the London Geological Society.


Sketch of Mary Anning by Henry De la Beche.

Mary Anning (1799-1847), was an special case. Despite her lower social condition and the fact that she was single, Mary became the most famous woman paleontologist of her time. She found the first specimens of what would later be recognized as Ichthyosaurus, the first complete Plesiosaurus, the first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany and suggested that the “Bezoar stones” were fossilized feces. After her death, Henry de la Beche, Director of the Geological Survey and President of the Geological Society of London, wrote a very affectionate obituary published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society on February 14, 1848, the only case of a non Fellow who received that honour.

Women were also great contributors to the popularization of geology. One such example is Mary Somerville. She has been called  “Queen of Nineteenth Century Science.”  She was also the first English geographer. Her book “Physical Geography” (1848) was the first textbook on the subject in English and her most popular work. It was published three years after the first volume of Alexander von Humboldt’s “Cosmos”. Jane Marcet’ Conversations on Chemistry, also gave a basic introduction in chemical mineralogy. Other examples include Delvalle Lowry, who published Conversations on Mineralogy in 1822, and Arabella Buckley, secretary of Charles Lyell, who wrote books about natural history.

Thanks to the pioneer work of these women, the 20th century saw the slow but firm advance of women from the periphery of science towards the center of it.




BUREK, C. V. & HIGGS, B. (eds) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281, 1–8. DOI: 10.1144/SP281.1.

Kölbl-Ebert, M. (2007). The geological travels of Charles Lyell, Charlotte Murchison and Roderick Impey Murchison in France and northern Italy (1828). Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 287(1), 109–117.doi:10.1144/sp287.9

Kölbl-Ebert M (2002): British Geology in the Early 19th Century – A Conglomerate with a Female Matrix.– Earth Sciences History 21(1): 3–25.

3 thoughts on “The Great Female Scientists of the Victorian Era

  1. Pingback: Fossil Friday Roundup: August 9, 2019 | PLOS Paleo Community

  2. the picture of Anning is actually of William Buckland drawn by tom Sopwith on their vist to Snowdonia to see if it had been glaciated in october 1842. It is of roche moutonees near Rhyd Ddu with the mountains the Nantlle ridge behind. The crag is y Garn 633 metres. I went there while researching the Buckland trip. You will find my paper linked at the end of this blog – see DarwinbucklandIce ;

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