Maria Ogilvie Gordon

Geologist

Maria Ogilvie Gordon portrait from M Wachtler

Image courtesy of National Library of Scotland

  • BORN 1864 Monymusk, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, UK
  • DIED 1939 London, England, UK
  • WORKED Aberdeen UK; Edinburgh, UK; London, UK
  • HONOURS BSc, University College London; PhD, University of Munich; DBE for civic and political work; DSc, University of London; Elected to the Geological Society of London; Honorary member of the Geological Survey of Austria Institute; Lyell Medal, Geological Society of London

Education

Edinburgh Ladies’ College, University College London, and postgraduate study leading to a PhD at the University of Munich.

Scientific Achievement

She conducted investigations by tramping around in the Dolomites – frequently alone – and collecting fossil specimens and making observations. 230 million years before, this area had been a tropical sea, and contained evidence of a large number of marine species. Maria Ogilvie Gordon took particular note of where her specimens were located, to try to understand the evolution of plant and animal life within layers of strata. She wrote several scientific papers describing her research and its conclusions,and one of these was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in 1895, communicated by the Scottish geologist, Sir Archibald Geikie. In 1927, she produced a major scientific work, a 400 page monograph on the geology and palaeontology of the South Tyrol. Recognising the appeal of the subject to non-specialists, she also produced 2 geological guidebooks which could be followed by visitors to the area.

Occupations

  • Geologist, who became the foremost expert on the geology of the South Tyrol.
  • Strong supporter of rights for women and children.
  • Justice of the Peace, and President of the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland.

In 1935 she was awarded a DBE for her civic and political work, including her role in the Council for the Representation of Women in the League of Nations rolling the First World War. In her scientific career, she was awarded a DSc from the University of London in 1893 – a first for a woman. She was one of the first women to be elected to the Geological Society of London, and the first female honorary member of the Geological Survey of Austria Institute. In 1932 she was presented with the Lyell Medal by the Geological Society of London.

Did You Know?

Maria Ogilvie Gordon’s interest in corals prompted her to give her elder daughter the name, Coral, much to the consternation of her family and friends. There is now a species of fossilised fern named Gordonopteris lorigae after both her and another female scientist who specialised on the area, Carmela Loriga Broglio.

An Inspiring Woman

Maria Ogilvie Gordon was a promising pianist, but decided on a scientific career. At University she specialised in botany, geology and zoology, and graduated BSc with a gold medal. Aiming for a PhD, she made contacts with geologists based in Munich, and her first sight of the Dolomites captured her imagination, and investigations there became the major focus of her scientific career. She went on hiking and climbing expeditions there, collecting fossils, and forming theories about the formation of the strata. This resulted in several papers, including a 78 page article for the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society in 1893. She then found time to go home to Aberdeen, get married, and have two children. In 1900, the University of Munich finally accepted her, and she was succeeded in gaining her PhD from there – the first female to achieve that distinction. Between 1900-1914, she continued her explorations in the Dolomites, collecting specimens, writing papers, and preparing a comprehensive study of the geology of the area. Her manuscript was nearly ready for publication in 1914, when she had to leave it and Munich behind on the outbreak of war. When she returned to the city in 1920, the manuscript had disappeared, and she had to completely rewrite it. It was published in 1927, and given glowing praise in the journal, Nature. Always a strong supporter of rights for women, Maria Ogilvie Gordon believed that men, women and children should have equal rights, and she wrote a ‘Handbook for Employment for Boys and Girls’. She became a Justice of the Peace, and took prominent positions within various national and international women’s societies.