Features / History

Four female geologists who deserve £50 note fame!

Earlier this month, the Bank of England announced it would be selecting a new face of the £50 note, which has featured steam engine industrialists Matthew Boulton and James Watt since 2011. The scientific community was excited to learn that the new note will feature a scientist – and the public have been invited to nominate their ideas!

Naturally, we’d love for a geologist to be the face of the £50, and there are plenty of famous faces to choose from – most of whom have something in common. Delve through the history of British geology, and unsurprisingly, you’ll find a wealth of well known and well documented men – less so women, who were finally admitted as Fellows of the Geological Society nearly 100 years ago, in 1919.

Attendees at the Geological Society’s centenary dinner in 1907 – including a very small number of women. Mrs Herries is seated just off-centre on the first table at the front of the photograph. On the third table closest to camera and on the right is Mrs Ethel Shakespear, next but one is Miss Maud Healey, next but one to her is Miss M. Andrews, and next but one again is Miss Gertrude Elles. Opposite Miss Andrews is Miss Margaret Crosfield. From Geological Society Special Publication 317

A female geologist on the £50 would be the perfect way to both mark the upcoming anniversary, and celebrate the enormous, and often undocumented, contribution women have made to our science. Mary Anning, perhaps the most well known female geologist amongst the public, has been deservedly tipped as a front runner, but there are many, many other female geologists who deserve the honour.

Luckily, you can nominate as many figures are you like – the only rules are that the scientist of your choice must be British and deceased. Here are just a few ideas – some who are better known than others. We’d love to hear your nominations for female geologists in the comments below!

Don’t forget to make your nomination/s by Friday 14 December on the Bank of England website!

Mary Anning, 1799 – 1847

Self taught palaeontologist and fossil collector, whose many discoveries led to important changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.

The clear front runner – some twitter users have already begun mocking up the resulting bank note..


Mary Anning (c. The Geological Society)

Born in Lyme Regis, Anning’s formal education was extremely limited. She was able to attend a Congregationalist Sunday School where she learned to read and write, but her father’s death when she was eleven years old meant that she and her brother Joseph were tasked with supplementing the family’s income. They did so by continuing their father’s work finding fossils.

Their first major find was an Ichthyosaur, discovered in two sections in 1811 and 1812 and described by Everard Home in a paper read before the Royal Society in 1814. Her second major discovery was described at the Geological Society’s meeting of 20 February 1824, and recognised by William Daniel Conybeare as being a virtually complete Plesiosaurus.

Other discoveries followed, such as the ink bags from fossilised squids which could then be ground down to make fossil ink. Coprolites were identified by Anning as early as 1824 and 1828 saw her third major find, that of a fossil flying reptile (Pterodactylus). In December 1829 she discovered the fossil fish Squaloraja, seem as the intermediary between sharks and rays, and 1830 saw her last important find, that of the Plesiosaurus microcephalus (named by William Buckland in 1836.)

Her profession was a risky one – in 1833 she closely avoided being killed in a landslide which crushed her dog, Trey. Despite her limited education, she read as much of the scientific literature as she could obtain, as well as laboriously hand-copied papers she borrowed from others. A copy she made of an 1824 paper by William Conybeare on marine reptile fossils includes several pages of her own detailed technical illustrations that are difficult to tell apart from the original. She also dissected modern animals like fish and cuttlefish to better understand the anatomy of some of the fossils with which she was working. A contemporary described her as ‘so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong.’

As a working class woman, Anning was an outsider to the scientific community. Nevertheless, many leading geologists of the time visited her to discuss her finds and hunt for fossils together, including Henry De la Beche, William Buckland, Richard Owen, Louis Agassiz, Gideon Mantell and Adam Sedgwick. Charles Lyell was among her correspondents, who wrote to ask her opinion on how the sea was affecting the coastal cliffs around Lyme. It was to Buckland that she made what would prove to be the scientifically important suggestion that the strange conical objects known as bezoar stones were really fossilised faeces – Buckland went on to name the objects coprolites.

By the 1840s, Anning’s large fossil finds (and the income they derived) had all but dried up. Three different annuities and subscriptions were raised by the scientific community to support her. On learning of her cancer diagnosis in 1846, the Geological Society raised funds from its members to help with her expenses, and the council of the newly created Dorset County Museum made her an honorary member. After her death the Geological Society’s President, Henry De la Beche, wrote a eulogy read to a meeting of the Society and published in the Quarterly Transactions – honours usually only accorded to Fellows of the Society.

Gertrude Lilian Elles MBE, 1872 – 1960

Pioneering graptolite researcher, first woman to be awarded a readership position at Cambridge, among the first GSL female Fellows and recipient of the Lyell fund and the Murchison Medal.

Staff of Newnham College (1907). Gertrude Elles sitting on grass second from left. From ‘The role of women in geological higher education’, GSL Special Publications 2007 vol. 281 no. 1 9-38

Gertrude Elles was born in Wimbledon. In 1895 she received first class honours in the Natural Science tripos at Cambridge, where she was an active member of the Sedgwick Club, the University’s official geological society, and played a pivotal role in the running of the club.

Despite her achievements at Cambridge, the University did not at this time award degrees to women. Elles had to wait until 1905 to receive hers, thanks to an arrangement between the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford and Trinity College, Dublin. Between 1904 and 1907, some 720 women, known as ‘steamboat ladies’, travelled to Dublin to receive their degrees ad eundem from the University of Dublin.

Elles was a field geologist, stratigrapher and palaeontologist. Her major work concerned the interpretation of graptolite zones of Lower Palaeozoic strata. In the late 1890s, she worked with her Newnham colleague Ethel Wood on the preparation of British Graptolites (1901 – 1918), a monograph which was produced in parts over the next twenty years under the general editorship of Professor Charles Lapworth.

In 1900, Elles was awarded the Lyell Fund from the Geological Society of London ‘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.’ At this time, women were banned from attending meetings of the Society, and despite several attempts by Fellows to overturn the rule, she was unable to receive her award in person. It was collected on her behalf by her Cambridge professor, Thomas McKenny Hughes.

The Society amended its byelaws in 1919, and Elles became one of the first eight women to be elected as Fellows of the Geological Society. In the same year, she was awarded the Society’s Murchison Medal. She was President of the British Association in 1923, and in 1924 became the first woman to be awarded a readership position at Cambridge. During the First World war, Elles was Red Cross commandant of a small Cambridge hospital for wounded combatants, for which she was awarded the MBE in 1920.

Elles continued to lecture and research until her retirement in 1938. She was made Reader Emeritus in 1938, and continued to supervise students, whose number included Dorothy Hill, Elizabeth Ripper and Oliver Bulman. Elles was one of the first geologists to look at not individual specimens of fossils but at the concept of communities of organisms. She was recognised internationally for her research on fossil graptolites, and particularly their geological distribution through Ordovician and Silurian marine strata. This allowed accurate global correlation and subdivision of the Lower Palaeozoic, work which was carried out by successive generations of Cambridge researchers, including a number of Elles’ students.

Catherine Raisin,1855 – 1945

Leading expert in microscopic petrology and mineralogy, first female head of a geology department, first woman awarded the Lyell Fund from the Geological Society, and campaigner for equality in education.

The Principal, art professor and science staff of Bedford College, 1903. Catherine Raisin standing far right. From ‘The role of women in geological higher education’, GSL Special Publications 2007 vol. 281 no. 1 9-38

Catherine Raisin was born in Camden, London. At 18, she began attending classes at University College London, where she first studied geology, then mineralogy. In 1877, Raisin attained a special certificate in botany, but could not start a degree until they were opened to women in 1878. In 1884 she finally obtained her BSc honours in geology and zoology, as the top University College graduate.

Following her graduation, she worked on a voluntary basis as a research assistant to Professor T. G. Bonney, under whom she had studied geology. In 1887 her first paper was read to the Geological Society of London. It was presented by Bonney, since women were not allowed to read their own papers at the Society.

In 1893 Raisin became the first woman to receive the Geological Society’s Lyell Fund for her research on metamorphism. Like Elles after her, she was unable to accept the award in person, as women were banned from attending Society meetings. The award was accepted by Bonney on her behalf.

The main focus of Raisin’s research was in microscopic petrology and mineralogy, topics in which she published 24 papers between 1887 and 1905. She was a leading expert on metamorphic facies, and also worked on the microcrystalline formation of chert in Jurassic era rocks. In 1898, Raisin obtained her Doctor of Science from the University of London – the second woman, after Maria Ogilvie, to achieve this.

Raisin spent her entire academic career at Bedford College, where in 1886 she became a demonstrator of botany. She became head of the college’s geology department in 1890 – the first woman in Britain to be an academic head of any geology department. She held the post until 1920. She was also head of the botany department from 1891 to 1908, and head of the geography department from 1916 to 1920. Raisin accepted an offer of the post of Vice Principal of the college in 1898, and in 1902 was elected a fellow of University College. She was also a member of the Geologists’ Association for 67 years, one of the longest serving members.

Raisin became a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1906, and in 1919, after the society changed its rules regarding female members, became the ninth female Fellow of the Geological Society. She campaigned for the right of female students to study and work at universities, and in 1880 founded the Somerville Club, a women’s discussion group which grew to over 1000 members by 1945.


Dame Maria Matilda Gordon DBE, 1864 – 1939

Eminent Scottish geologist, palaeontologist and politician. First woman to be awarded a Doctor of Science from University College London and a PhD from the University of Munich.

Maria Gordon, nee Ogilvie, was born in Monymusk, Aberdeenshire. She showed a profound interest in nature during her childhood, and enjoyed exploring the landscape of the Highlands during holidays.

An aspiring pianist, at age 18 she travelled to London to study music before deciding on a career in science. She graduated in 1890 with a gold medal from University College London, her BSc specialising in geology, botany and zoology. In 1891 she travelled to Germany, hoping to continue her studies at the University of Berlin. As women were not permitted to enrol in for higher education in Germany she was refused, but at Munich was permitted to carry out research as a private person and to listen to lectures – although she had to sit in a separate room and listen with the doors half open.

In July 1891, the geologist Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen invited Ogilvie on a five week trip to the Dolomites. Having been considering a career in zoology, Ogilvie was so impressed by the landscape of the Dolomites that her interests shifted to geology. For two summers she hiked, climbed and studied various areas, instructing local collectors to carefully record and describe their fossils. Her fieldwork was done without supervision, which she later described as a ‘serious handicap’.

In 1893 she published the results in the article ‘Contributions to the geology of the Wengen and St Cassian Strata in southern Tyrol’ in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society. It provided important contributions to the still poorly understood stratigraphic record of these mountains, establishing marker horizons and describing the ecology of various fossil corals associations. Ogilvie alone described 345 species of mollusks and corals of the Wengen and St Cassian Formations – in total today, 1400 species are recognised.

The article gained her the first female Doctor of Science degree in the United Kingdom, from UCL in 1893. Returning to Munich in 1900, she became the first woman to obtain a PhD there, receiving a distinction in the fields of geology, palaeontology and zoology.

Between 1900-14, she continued her explorations in the Dolomites, collecting specimens, writing papers and preparing for a comprehensive study of the geology of the area. Her manuscript was nearly ready for publication in 1914, when she had to leave it and Munich behind on the outbreak of war. When she returned in 1920, the manuscript had disappeared and had to be completely rewritten. It was published in 1927, and given glowing praise in the journal Nature. Recognising the appeal of the subject to non specialists, she also produced two guidebooks for visitors – the first examples of modern geological guidebooks for this region.

Ogilvie was active in politics as a Liberal and supporter of women’s rights. She played an important part in the post-World War 1 negotiations at the Council for the Representation of Women in the League of Nations, and took prominent positions within various national and international women’s societies.

In total, she wrote more than 30 papers based on her research and findings in the South Tyrol, many of which are considered seminal works. Her biographer described her as “probably the most productive woman field geologist of any country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

2 thoughts on “Four female geologists who deserve £50 note fame!

  1. Pingback: The Great Geoadvent: Door 24 | Geological Society of London blog

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