Forgotten women of paleontology: Charlotte Murchison

‘The light of science’, a satirical cartoon by Henry T De la Beche, 1832, depicting Charlotte Murchinson

By the early nineteenth century, the study of the Earth became central to the economic and cultural life of Great Britain. 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, although they were still barred from membership in scientific societies. Early female scientists were often born into influential families, like 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.

Charlotte Murchison (neé Hugonin) was born on 18 April 1788 in Hampshire, England. When she met her future husband Roderick Murchison, she was a well-educated woman with great interest in science and he was a cavalry officer in the Dragoons who was more interested in horses and dogs than in Geology. The couple married on August 29, 1815. The  first few years of their marriage they travelled extensively in the Continent. In Italy they became friends with Mary Somerville, the “Queen of Nineteenth Century Science.” In her autobiography, Mary Somerville wrote about Charlotte: “Mrs Murchison was an amiable accomplished woman, 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.”

Charlotte (née Hugonin), Lady Murchison by Camille Silvy, albumen print, 1860, NPG Ax50535
© National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1824 the couple moved to London where they began to attend lectures on geology and chemistry. A year later, Roderick Murchison read his first paper to the Geological Society. The same year, the couple explored the southern coast of England. In Lyme Regis, they became friends with Mary Anning, and when Mary visited London in July 1829, she stayed with the Murchisons. In a letter to Charlotte Murchison, dated October 11, 1833, Mary writes about the death of her beloved dog Tray which was killed in a landslide: “I would have answered your kind letter by the return of post, if I had been able. Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog quite upset me, the Cliff fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet, it was but a moment between me and the same fate”.

In 1826, the couple traveled to the coast of Yorkshire. The fossils collected by Charlote were later described by James de Carle Sowerby in the “Mineral Conchology of Great Britain”. In 1827 Sowerby named an ammonite in her honor: Ammonites murchinsoniae. Willian Buckland also used Charlotte’s collection of fossils to illustrate his “Geology and Mineralogy Considered with References to Natural Theology.”

One of Charlotte Murchison’s illustrations for: Murchison, Roderick Impey. The Silurian system (Image: archive.org)

In 1828, Charlotte and her husband joined Charles Lyell on a long journey around Europe. In his notes Charles Lyell praised the active participation of Charlotte: “Mrs . M. is very diligent , sketching, labelling specimens & making out shells in which last she is an invaluable assistant.” Nevertheless, in the summer of 1832, Lyell refused to let women attend his lectures in Geology at Kings College London because he thought that women in a classroom would be “unacademical”. Charlotte and Mary Somerville were among the women who insisted on being allowed to attend the lectures. Some days later, in a letter to his long time friend William Whewell, Mary Somerville wrote: ‘It is decided by the Council of the University that ladies are to be admitted to the whole course, so you can see what in[va]sions we are making on the laws of learned societies, reform is nothing to it”

It was suggested that Lyell’s capitulation was related to Charlotte’s presence among the crowd. In 1834, William Whewell welcomed scientific women to the third meeting of the British Association. In an invitation addressed to Mary Somerville, he wrote: “I expect Mrs. Buckland and Mrs. Murchinson and several other ladies…”

Charlotte continued sketching the cliffs and collecting fossils but due to her health issues, she was not abble to join her husband in many of his late travels. By the 1860s Charlotte’s health has deteriorated. She died on 9 February 1869 at her home in Belgrave Square, London.

 

References:

Kölbl-Ebert, Martina (1997). “Charlotte Murchison (Née Hugonin) 1788-1869”. Earth Sciences History (History of Earth Sciences Society) 16 (1): 39–43 https://doi.org/10.17704/eshi.16.1.97014235w8u4k414

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

EYLES, V. A. (1971). Roderick Murchison, Geologist and Promoter of Science. Nature, 234(5329), 387–389. doi:10.1038/234387a0

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.

 

 

References:

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.