History

100 years of female Fellows: Lady Rachel Workman MacRobert

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! 

“I can see I have created a sensation.” – Lady Rachel Workman MacRobert, on attending a Royal School of Mines lecture as a woman in 1910.

RWM timeline

Rachel MacRobert (née Workman, and later Lady MacRobert), although born in Worcester, Massachusetts to a prominent and wealthy New England family, was raised in Germany and then educated in UK. Her family moved to Dresden, Germany, when she was 5 years old in an attempt to improve her father’s deteriorating health. Invigorated by the relocation, her parents discovered a love for cycling and mountaineering, travelling widely. They frequently spent long periods of time away from Rachel and her brother Siegfried, leaving them in the care of nannies and nurses. When Siegfried tragically died of pneumonia in 1893, Rachel’s parents sent her to Cheltenham Ladies College in England to complete her education.

She remained in contact with her parents throughout her life as they continued to explore – cycling all over Italy, Algeria, Spain, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Sumatra, Myanmar and India on one of the first modern ‘safety’ bicycles, and undertaking no less than seven Himalayan mountaineering expeditions. Foreshadowing Rachel’s fractious relationship with the Geological Society over her rights to attend and present her research, in 1905 (after working as a lecturer for them for a year) her mother forced her way into the Royal Geographical Society, where women were not officially admitted until 1913, to forcefully deliver her research paper on glaciers in India. A maverick attitude to achieving gender equality in the learned institutions must have run in the Workman women’s blood.

Rachel Workman went from Cheltenham Ladies College to Royal Holloway College (University of London, now known as UCL) where she specialised in geology. She spent a year at the University of Edinburgh studying Geology and Political Economy from 1907 to 1908, and attended the Royal School of Mines from 1909 – 1912 (the first woman to do so). She graduated from the University of London with a second class Honours degree in geology in 1911, publishing her first academic paper “Calcite as a Primary Constituent of Igneous Rocks” in the Geological Magazine in the same year. Throughout her career, she researched glacial geomorphology, petrology, and mineralogy in Scotland, Sweden and Norway. She was active in the research community and endeavoured to attend as many scientific meetings as she could, never deterred by the custom that women were not permitted to join learned societies at the time.

Workman was a feminist, determined to impose equality on the male-dominated scientific community of the 1900s. She was known to be bold and actively challenge the norm of pervasive gender inequality prevalent at the time. She staunchly defended her right to attend scientific meetings and conferences by enforcing her attendance – this sometimes got her into trouble with those who wished to uphold longstanding exclusionary rules, regulations and traditions. In 1913 she was almost removed from an Annual General Meeting of the Geological Society, “An attempt was made to eject me. The Secretary rushed up and said I was not a Fellow, so I explained this was through no fault of mine but the Society’s and waved him aside and marched in…They need not try any tricks with me because I am a woman, I have always gone to the Annual Meetings and intend to do so if in London!”.

Lady Rachel Workman MacRobert & Sir Alexander MacRobert on their wedding day

Lady Rachel Workman MacRobert and Sir Alexander MacRobert on their wedding day in July 1911. (C) The MacRobert Trust.

Rachel met her husband, Sir Alex MacRobert, in 1909 and they were married in 1911. He was a businessman, 30 years her senior, who spent much of his time working in India. Together they had three children, Alasdair (1912), Roderic (1915) and Iain (1917), whom she cared for mostly alone while her husband spent extended periods in India. This did not discourage her research career, and she continued to publish her work as she raised her boys, notably on the Eildon Hills of the Scottish borders in 1914.

Rachel undertook her postgraduate studies at the Mineralogical Institute of Oslo. Thanks to her wealth she was able to travel widely, and did not need to work. She spoke many European languages including French, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Norwegian and German and would use these to make friends while she travelled to undertake research. She became a Fellow of the Geological Society of Stockholm before becoming one of the first female Fellows elected to the Geological Society of London in 1919. On being admitted to the Society, Rachel indelicately remarked –

“I am very much amused at the first list of 16 women admitted to the F.G.S. There are one or two notabilities the others merely wives. It is obvious why they were admitted at this juncture. They are badly needing additional subscriptions so the female subscriber has a financial value if none other. Poor downtrodden race!”

Rachel was a known suffragette, following in her mother’s footsteps, often hosting events and meetings for the movement. She was even known to have supported violent action taken against authorities by some protesters, justifying their behaviour by saying –

“Girls have no sort of life under present social conditions and the wickedness of men at large.”

Rachel often suffered discrimination while on geological fieldwork and even at university lectures, documented in correspondence with her husband:

“Everyone is most awfully nice, but I had to overcome the usual annoyance men have when women are about on scientific expeditions. Now that they have found that I am not a drag on them or bore them with talk they are very pleasant.” – on expedition in Lapland and northern Sweden.

“I noticed considerable surprise on Cox’s face on entering the room, and much whispering among the students. The next day Prof. Watts rushed up to me with an amused grin and said ‘so you are attending the mining lectures I hear, well you have broken all records. No woman has ever attended mining lectures before! Are you going on?’ So I said yes, and assured him I had no idea they were not admitted but that of course I was going on. If I hear any more I shall require to see the Statutes which exclude women. Of course there are none, and it simply has not occurred before! But I don’t mean to be turned out. Especially as they happen to be very good. But I can see I have created a sensation.” – following her attendance at a mining lecture at the Royal School of Mines.

Geologists on a Trip to Sweden

Group photograph of geologists on a trip to Sweden, Norway and Lapland 1909/1910. Rachel Workman (later Lady Rachel MacRobert), middle row, third from right. Sir Alexander MacRobert (Rachel’s future husband) is in the back row on the far right. (C) BGS (Image ID: P883132).

Despite Rachel’s contributions to the study of geology and to gender equality in the geosciences, she is best known for founding the MacRobert Trust after losing all three of her sons in World War II. She donated £25,000 to the RAF to fund a bomber to be named the ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ for the military to use in the war effort. Subsequently, she donated a further four aircraft to the RAF, one named after each son and one in her name. The MacRobert Trust was set up to support former RAF pilots and Lady MacRobert donated generously to this cause throughout her life and on her death in her will. The MacRobert Trust remains active today and supports charitable causes and maintains the MacRobert’s estate in Cromar, Aberdeenshire.

Sources and further reading:

 

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