Thursday, 11 February 2016

Maria Matilda Ogilvie-Gordon (1864-1939) #WomenInScience

The 11th of February is International Women In Science day (#WomeninScience). People across the world have been sharing their favourite female scientist.

Here is one of mine.

Dame Maria Ogilvie-Gordon

Maria Matilda Ogilvie-Gordon, prolific Scottish geologist, botanist and zoologist.
The first ever Doctor of Science degree in geology given to a woman was presented to Maria Ogilvie. A Scottish scientist known latterly for her part in the negotiations at the Council for the Representation of Women in the League of Nations after WWI, she was an eminent scientist in her field and a prolific researcher.

Maria was the eldest of eight children, born in 1864 to the Headmaster of Robert Gordon’s College, the Reverend Alexander Ogilvie, and his wife Maria Matilda Nicol. Maria excelled in academia from the start, being best academic pupil (and head girl) at the Merchant Company Edinburgh Ladies' College, before taking up piano at Royal Academy of Music in London. However, she soon left this training to pursue science back in Scotland, attending what is now Herriot-Watt University (at the time it was a technical college), before returning to London to specialise in geology, botany and zoology at University College London in 1890.

She pushed many boundaries in her time, especially for women in academia. Along with well-respected friends and scientists, she petitioned the University of Berlin to accept her as their first female student in 1891. Despite being unsuccessful, she would go on to become the first women to be awarded a PhD from the University of Munich in 1900, after a decade of detailed research with German colleagues.

Her work involved hard hiking in the steep mountainous terrain of the Dolomites and Alps, for which she also learned to climb. Her paper, Contributions to the Geology of the Wengen and St. Cassian Strata in Southern Tyrol, earned her a Doctor in Science degree from the University of London in 1893, making her the first woman to be given a degree in Geology. A gifted artist, she also illustrated this paper herself, including stratigraphy and details of the coral structures that compose much of the Dolomites. Her studies of these mountains continued for many years, and resulted in a new understanding of the tectonic evolution of this area and its complex geology. Her contributions to palaeontology particularly centre on her detailed observation of fossil corals, as in her second paper, Coral in the Dolomites of South Tyrol.

Langkofel in the Dolomites, South Tyrol. These stunning mounatins are prodeominantly coral reef, and Maria's detailed studies revealed both their complex formation, and the importance of understanding the fossil coral they are comprised of. (Image: Wikipedia)
Undoubtedly the most prolific female geologist of the twentieth century, Maria published over 30 papers and wrote the leading reference book on the geology of the Tyrolean Dolomites. She was a Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London, and the Geological Society of London. She was conferred with honorary degrees from the Universities of Edinburgh, Sydney and several others for her geological research. She was awarded the Lyell medal in 1932 and Lyell Geological fund.

It is easy for a scientist to become fixed in their discipline and not stray from it, but Maria was not only a scientist but a tireless humanitarian: “A brilliant speaker, widely informed, especially on foreign matters, versed in travel, and able to give information clearly and thoroughly” (Glasgow herald June 26th 1939).

Her empathy for the difficulties women faced probably stemmed in part from her own resolve to maintain both a career and family. She married the physician, John Gordon, in 1985, and they had three children while she continued her research and developed a prolific career. John fully supported her, even accompanying her and the children on field work in the Dolomites. She said: “the work was a joy and I look back on the days of expecting discovery at every corner as my happiest time”.

One of Maria's excellent diagrams of the Langkofel Group, from Gordon and Pia (1939). (Image via David Bressan)
GORDON & PIA (1939): "Zur Geologie der Langkofelgruppe in den S├╝dtiroler Dolomiten." - See more at:
She was deeply involved in women's rights, and dedicated to bringing their concerns and needs to the political and social forefront. Maria was the first vice-president of the International Council of Women, President of the National Council of Women, and honorary president of the National Women’s Associations, and the Associated Women’s Friendly Society. She was also Chairman of the Mothercraft and Welfare Exhibitions committee. While living in Aberdeen she became interested in the education of girls, publishing a survey in which she made suggestions for improved practical training for young women and girls.

For her many achievements Maria was awarded a D.B.E. from King George V. She is also commemorated in the name of a Triassic fern, Gordonopteris lorigae, named for her in 2000 (and also for fellow female geologist, Carmela Loriga-Broglio).
Gordonopteris lorigae (Van Konijnenburg et al., 2006) a fern from the Anisian, named for the Scottish geologist whose work illuminated the geological formation of the Dolomites.
Maria died peacefully in her home in London on 24th June, 1939. She was cremated at Golders Green and her ashes placed in Allenvale Cemetry, Aberdeen. She deserves to be remembered for her contribution to science and as an inspiration for women and girls around the world.

Wikipedia - Dame Maria and the Dolomites