Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Elizabeth Anderson Grey - Scottish Lady Palaeontologist

Have you heard of Elizabeth Anderson Gray? She was one of the most important and prolific female Scottish fossil collectors of her time, responsible for amassing collections that are still vital to our knowledge of the stratigraphy and species composition of the Ordovician and Silurian rocks of Scotland.

Born in Alloway, Ayreshire, to an Innkeeper, Elizabeth’s family then relocated to become farmers in Girvan, a small coastal town 60 miles south of Glasgow. Although she moved occasionally in her life (to Glasgow and to Edinburgh), it was from the rocks around Girvan that Elizabeth would collect most of her specimens during her long lifetime.
Elizabeth Anderson Gray spent her entire life fossil hunting. Her collections were vital to our understanding of early life on earth. (Picture from Carrick Scotland: Beyond the Tourist Guides)
Elizabeth’s father, Thomas Anderson (who had a trilobite and a coral named after him), introduced her to geology and fossil collecting when she was a child. From this point onwards she collected assiduously, continuing until the autumn before her death, at the age of 93. Like many women collectors, Elizabeth Anderson Gray was overshadowed publically by her husband Robert Gray, co-founder of The Natural History Society of Glasgow (NHSG), under whose name much of their joint wor was presented. This was necessary in the 1800s as most Societies where their finds might be presented did not admit women until the turn of the century.
Elizabeth Gray was dedicated to record keeping and extending our understanding of the diversity of early Palaeozoic life. Despite her modest early education, her lifelong learning was augmented in 1869 when she was invited to attend geology lectures for women at the University of Glasgow.
Elizabeth was clearly an astute woman. She ensured the importance of her finds was recognised by having them formally described by established scientists (who were of course, all men). Her legacy also survived in the Gray Collections, which were sold to museums across the United Kingdom, the main ones being the Natural History Museum in London and the Hunterian in Glasgow. Many of her finds are type specimens, the material that defines a species taxonomically, such as Hudsonaster grayae (an early starfish), Archophiactis grayae (also an echinoderm), and Lophospira trispiralis (a type of mollusc).

One of the fossils from the Gray Collection. ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Many specimens collected by Elizabeth are referred to in the proceedings of the Natural History Society of Glasgow between 1868 and 1878, and unlike many other women geologists of her time (notably Mary Anning) she even had the honour of having some named after her – although it was the surname she shared with her husband, rather than forename, that was mostly used for this purpose. Other material was named for Girvan, the area she found it in.
Using her detailed observational skill, Elizabeth presented a list of the fossils she collected in Ayrshire which was extensively used by other geologists in both Scotland and England. It formed an important contribution to the British Geological Survey’s volume on Silurian Scottish rocks.

The Grays were friends with the well-known geologist Charles Lapworth and fossil collector Jane Donald Longstaff.  Although considered by both herself and the professionals of the day as an amateur, Elizabeth was undeniably a skilled one; responsible for uncovering a great deal of the diversity of Palaeozoic rocks in Scotland. Years of collecting led Elizabeth to be well versed in geology and sedimentology, keeping careful records of her work. It is because she recorded the locations, geology and associations of each of her specimens that Gray’s collections remain invaluable to those studying the Ordivician and Silurian today. 

After her husband’s death in 1887, Elizabeth continued to collect fossils, often with the help of her two daughters, Alice and Edith, who undoubtedly knew a great deal thanks to the many “geologising” family holidays taken over the years. In 1900 Elizabeth’s contributions to geology were recognised by the Geological Society of Glasgow, who made her an honorary member. The Natural History Society of Glasgow followed suit a year later.

In 1903, at the stately age of 72, Elizabeth was awarded the Murchison Geological Fund from the Geological Society of London, for her lifelong contribution to early Palaeozoic geological research. She continued to collect and disseminate her material until the year before her death from bronchitis on 11th February, 1924. 
Elizabeth's daughters continued her work, they were known as "the Misses Grey". ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
She had spent almost a century working in the field, and yet so few people know her name. Her daughters – referred to as “the Misses Gray” - continued to collect; diligently uncovering new specimens as their mother had before them. They eventually sold her remaining collection to the Natural History Museum, ensuring their mother’s work would survive and remain available for future scientific study. 

Without her, our understanding of the early Palaeozoic in Scotland and the UK would be much the poorer.

(this article first appeared on 27/5/15)

To find out more about the Gray collection at the Natural History Museum in London, search for her fossils here:
For more on the geology of Girvan, and the rest of Scotland, try

Burek, C. V., & Higgs, B. (2007) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. The Geological Society; Bath.

MacBride E. W., & Spencer W. K (1938) Two New Echinoidea, Aulechinus and Ectinechinus, and an Adult Plated Holothurian, Eothuria, from the Upper Ordovician of Girvan, Scotland. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 229

McCance M. (2002) Hugh Miller, 1802-1856, Geologist and Writer: His Links with 19th Century Girvan. Ayrshire Notes No.23

Peach, B. N, Horne, J., & Teall, J. J. H. (1899) The Silurian rocks of Britain: Vol. I.Scotland. Glasgow: J. Hedderwick & Sons. Available from:
Weddel, R.  ‘Some Significant Women in the Early Years of the Natural History Society of Glasgow’ [online]. Available from:

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