2019 marks 100 years since women were able to be elected as Fellows of the Geological Society, with the first eight elected in May 1919. They came from a diverse range of specialisms, backgrounds and experience – as part of our activities to mark the anniversary, we’re profiling each of them.
We know more about some than others – if you have any information you’d like to share with us about our early female Fellows, please get in touch!
Gertrude Lilian Elles MBE, 1872 – 1960
Gertrude Elles was born in Wimbledon, and educated at Wimbledon High School and Newnham College, Cambridge, where in 1895 she received first class honours in the Natural Science tripos. At Cambridge, 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 acknowledgment 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 by all accounts in great demand as a lecturer – as one of her students later commented:
‘She was a very stimulating teacher, and not only of members of the College – she was in great demand. She taught geological mapping in the Sedgwick: everybody went to that. She was marvellously clear and very, very fierce.’
The same student adds:
‘…when women began to lecture in 1928 they lectured in hats…The Don (Dr Elles) had a marvellous sort of russet-coloured felt hat that she plonked on her head; it had a brim which swept across her nose and the crown was almost non-existent.’ (1)
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.
Further reading, and the sources of information in this blog, can be found in the following publications:
- C. V. Burek, The role of women in geological higher education – Bedford College, London (Catherine Raisin) and Newnham College, Cambridge, UK.
Cynthia V. Burek, The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London.