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!
Ethel Woods (nee Skeat), 1865 – 1939
Ethel Woods (nee Skeat) was born in Cambridge in 1865 to Professor Walter William Skeat (Professor of Anglo Saxon) and Bertha Jones. She was educated at Bateman House, a Catholic school for girls in Cambridge, from 1877 to 1885 before attending a boarding school in St Leonard’s on Sea for a year until she turned 21 in 1886.
She attended Newnham College from 1891 to study the Natural Science Tripos, and remained affiliated with the College until her marriage to Professor Henry Woods, a palaeontologist, in 1910. It is thought that Dr Marr and Professor Hughes, colleagues of her father at Cambridge University, would have encouraged her interest in the geological sciences.
In 1894 she became the Arthur Hugh Clough Scholar, and completed part 1 of the Tripos, but was never awarded a degree. In 1895 Ethel was awarded the Bathurst studentship, to study under Professor Karl A. von Zittel in Munich. She was the first female to attend scientific lectures at the university, and it is thought that during her time there she would have met Maria Ogilvie, another active geologist of the time, who received her doctorate from Munich University in 1900.
In 1893 Ethel joined the Geologists’ Association, and began collaborating with Margaret Crosfield on their study of the geology of the Carmarthen region of south west Wales, which was published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society in 1896. She published her research again in 1898, in collaboration with Dr Victor Marsden of the Danish Geological Survey, with whom she worked on the palaeontology of glacial boulders in Denmark.
By 1898 Ethel became a school mistress in Glamorgan (Wales), moving in 1904 to Queen’s School in Chester where she taught botany, geology, nature, geography, chemistry and zoology. In 1905 Ethel received a Doctorate from Trinity College Dublin in ‘recognition of her contribution to geological research’. During her time in Chester she conducted research with Margaret Crosfield for their paper on the geology of the Clwydian Range in north Wales (Woods & Crosfield, 1925).
She continued her research while teaching, receiving the Murchison Fund from the Geological Society in 1908 to support her work. Sir Archibald Geikie remarked, “It is with much gratification that we hail in you another woman who is worthily placed on the roll of those who have gained our awards” on awarding Ethel the fund.
Ethel was married in 1910, moving back to Cambridge from Chester to become a lecturer at the Cambridge Training College for Women. In World War I, her experience with the German language gained her a position in the postal censorship department. After World War I, she returned to the Training College as Registrar and Honorary Secretary, where she worked from 1919 until 1937.
In 1923 Ethel published the reference textbook “Principles of Geography: Physical and Human”, which became the key reference textbook for the period. Additionally in 1932 she published a book on the Baltic region based on her earlier experience working there.
Ethel died in 1939, leaving all her clothes and jewellery to her lifelong friend Elizabeth Clay, whom she met when she was school mistress in Glamorgan. She was regarded highly by her friends and colleagues, as is evidenced how Gertrude Elles described her in her obituary for the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, ‘friendly’, ‘companionable’,’ delightful’, and ‘equable’ (Elles, 1940).
Read more about our first eight female Fellows:
Further reading, and the sources for this blog, can be found in the following publications:
- Burek, C. V.; Malpas, J. A. (2007). “Rediscovering and conserving the Lower Palaeozoic ‘treasures’ of Ethel Woods (née Skeat) and Margaret Crosfield in northeast Wales”. The Role of Women in the History of Geology. London: Geological Society. pp. 205–221. ISBN978-1-86239-227-4.
- Burek, Cynthia V.; Higgs, Bettie; London, Geological Society of (2007). The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society of London. p. 203. ISBN9781862392274.
- The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London. Cynthia V. Burek. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 317, 373-407, 21 August 2009, https://doi.org/10.1144/SP317.21
- The Making of the Geological Society of London. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 317, NP, 21 August 2009, https://doi.org/10.1144/SP317.0