Mary Lyell

Geologist

No honours were awarded to Mary Lyell, but she almost certainly contributed significantly to the work which made her husband, Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) famous

  • BORN 1808 Pancras, Middlesex, England, UK
  • DIED 1873 London, England, UK
  • RESIDENCE Kirriemuir, UK

Education

Mary was the eldest of 6 daughters of Leonard Horner (1785-1864), an educational reformer and amateur geologist, who ensured that all his daughters were well-educated. Letters he wrote to his daughters were published in his own Memoir. It is clear from the references he makes that all of them had excellent general knowledge.

Scientific Achievement

Mary Lyell is an example of a woman eclipsed by her husband, as was quite common in the days when women found it difficult to pursue independent careers. Her own speciality was in conchology – the science of shells – especially fossil shells. She and her husband Charles often travelled together and it was she who catalogued the specimens of rocks, minerals and fossils they had collected. Charles had poor eyesight, and his knowledge of foreign languages was limited. Mary, then, acted as his scribe and translator. It appears she had a good knowledge of French, German, Spanish and Swedish. Mary herself corresponded with other scientists, including Charles Darwin.

Occupation

Geologist and conchologist, who was a very able assistant to her husband, Sir Charles Lyell. Charles wrote one of the most influential geological works of all time, Principles of Geology. In 3 volumes, it follows the theories of James Hutton, who propounded that forces acting on the Earth such as wind and water had always been present, and the changes which resulted were continuous and cyclical.

Did You Know?

Craters on Venus are always named after women. One is named Horner, the maiden name of Mary. Mary’s sister, Katharine, married Charles Lyell’s brother, Henry..

An Inspiring Woman

Mary’s father, Leonard Horner, and Charles Lyell became friends through their mutual interest in geology, and this was how Mary and Charles met. Charles almost immediately involved her in his scientific research. Their home was often the gathering place for groups of scientists and their wives and families, such as Mary Somerville, Charles and Emma Darwin, and the geologist and palaeontologist, Gideon Mantell and his wife. Mary Lyell was the more sociable in the couple, and she appears to have been able to converse easily with all of these eminent people. Mary’s death in 1873 devastated Charles, and her loss was felt deeply by others too. One American tribute, published in the Boston Daily Advertiser said: ‘There are many hearts in the United States which will be saddened by the death of this admirable woman… Her marriage with an eminent man of science gave a scientific turn to her thoughts and studies, and she became to her husband not merely the truest of friends and the most affectionate and sympathising of companions, but a very efficient helper.’