Charlotte Murchison (née Hugonin)

Geologist

Photo by Camille Silvy
albumen print, 1860
NPG Ax50535
© National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

  • BORN 18th April 1788, Hampshire, England
  • DIED 9th February 1869, Belgrave Square, London, England
  • WORKED Different parts of England, including Hampshire, County Durham and Dorset; Some locations in Scotland including the Highlands, the Isle of Skye and Arran; Various parts of Europe including France, the Alps and Italy
  • HONOURS No honours at all, yet evidence suggests that she was far more knowledgeable and committed to geology than was her husband, yet he became a Fellow of the Royal Society, was elected President of the Geological Society, and was knighted!

Entry by Catherine Booth

Artistic Connections

Charlotte Murchison made numerous sketches of fossils and of geologically interesting landscapes, several of which were published to illustrate her husband’s work and that of others.

Sketch of Valley of Gosau, Salzburg Alps, as drawn by Charlotte Murchison to illustrate the article: Sedgwick, Adam and Murchison, Roderick Impey. A sketch of the structure of the Eastern Alps. Transactions of the Geological Society of London, 2nd series, Vol 3 (1835) (Image source: archive.org)

Music

Title:  TrowelBlazers  – Time & Tide & Tectonics Wait for no Woman
Composer: FRANCES M LYNCH
Additional  Music: “Annie Laurie” by ALICIA ANNE SCOTT (1810 –1900)
Words by: Frances M Lynch
Written in: 2017
For: 2 solo voices and female chorus
Commissioned: by Lyme Regis Fossil Festival 2017
Performed by: Margaret Cameron  and Frances M Lynch
World Premiere:  29th April, 2017, Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

TrowelBlazers was set up by an inspirational group of women to celebrate women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists who have been doing awesome work for far longer, and in far greater numbers, than most people realise.  In 2017 we were approached by Lyme Regis Fossil Festival to create a workshop and performance celebrating TrowelBlazers’ Raising Horizons Exhibition. This  tribute to them features only four of the many women whose work they celebrate –  Charlotte Murchison, MARY LYELL, MARIA OGILVIE GORDON and ANNE ROBERTSON

The words include this quote from Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964) Marine Biologist, Ecologist:-

“On every out-thrust headland, on every curving beach, in every grain of sand, there is a story of the earth”

Feel free to join in the chorus:
TrowelBlazers, TrowelBlazers, TrowelBlazers, finding footprints of the past

Education

There is no record of her education, other than that she had sketching lessons from the painter and Founder Member of the Royal Academy, Paul Sandby. It is known that her father was a well-respected General with an interest in astronomy, and her mother an accomplished botanist and florist, and almost certainly they passed on their knowledge to their daughter.  Her husband, Sir Roderick Murchison, in a letter to his biographer and fellow geologist, Sir Archibald Geikie, describes both Charlotte and her parents as having instructed him in natural history subjects.

Occupations

Geologist
Among her natural history interests, geology was the one on which she concentrated, studying mineral specimens and fossilised shells whenever the opportunity arose

Fossil collector
Charlotte Murchison was said to have an excellent collection of fossils, many of which she had collected herself, and she was skilled in their identification. The expertise of the Dorset fossil hunter, Mary Anning (1799-1847), has only been publicly recognised in recent years. In 1825, during a visit to Lyme Regis, Charlotte Murchison spent some time walking and collecting fossils with Mary Anning. In a letter to his biographer, Roderick Murchison writes that the work of the two women resulted in his (yes, his!) first fossil collection being much enriched.

Botanical enthusiast
During their travels, Charlotte Murchison frequently pointed out to her husband the wild flowers they saw, especially when these were growing at high altitudes or in clefts of rocks

Scientific traveller
Right from the first months of their marriage, Charlotte Murchison accompanied her husband on many of his travels throughout Britain and Europe. She coped with arduous journeys through difficult terrain, even though she suffered ill health for much of her life.

Artist
During her travels with her husband, she made numerous sketches of the scenery she passed through, as well as drawings of fossils and specimens which she discovered

One of Charlotte Murchison’s illustrations for: Murchison, Roderick Impey. The Silurian system … Part 1 (1839) (Image source: archive.org)


Landscape near Portree, Skye (Image source: “Portree Bay path” by swan-scot licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Scientific Achievements

  • Ammonites murchisonae, named after Charlotte Murchison
    (Image source: Sowerby, James De Carle. Mineral Conchology Of Great Britain Vol. 6 (1829), archive.org.)

    Because Charlotte Murchison was very self-effacing, we do not have her words to describe her scientific achievements, but we can read the views of some of her contemporaries. It is clear that she was respected as a knowledgeable geologist by fellow scientists of her time, but regretfully her husband is the one who is remembered today, not Charlotte. Quotes from these contemporaries include the following:

  • Our great geologist, Sir Roderick Murchison, with his wife, were among the English residents at Rome. At that time he hardly knew one stone from another. He had been an officer in the Dragoons, an excellent horseman, and a keen fox-hunter. Lady Murchison – an amiable and accomplished woman, with solid acquirements which few ladies at that time possessed – had taken to the study of geology; and soon after her husband began that career which has rendered him the first geologist of our country. (Personal recollections… / MARY SOMERVILLE (1873))
  • In that wildest and weirdest of the Western Islands he and his wife did excellent work in collecting fossils, and thereby obtaining materials for making more detailed comparison … The actual fossil-hunting was mainly done by Mrs Murchison, after whom one of the shells (Ammonites murchisonae) was named… (Life of Sir Roderick I. Murchison… / Archibald Geikie (1875))
  • Ammonites murchisonae – Broken out of a calcareous nodule composed of compacted Ammonites and other fossils, at the base of a cliff of micaceous sandstone east of Holme, near Portree, Isle of Skye, by Mrs Murchison, after whom I have named it, as a just tribute for the ardour with which she has pursued the study of Fossil Conchology, the pleasing effects of which those who are so happy as to be acquainted with her know how to appreciate. (Mineral conchology of Great Britain Vol. 6 / James De Carle Sowerby (1829))

Did You Know?

  • Charlotte’s mother died in 1838, leaving Charlotte with a large legacy, which funded the purchase of a house for the couple in Belgrave Square, London. An indication of how a married woman’s money was treated at that time is shown in the fact that on her death in 1869, Charlotte’s estate amounted to less than £100. In contrast, on his death 2 years later, Roderick Murchison’s wealth was under £300,000.
  • A film, Ammonite, due for release in 2020, tells the story of the fossil hunter, Mary Anning. Charlotte Murchison features in the film, played by Saoirse Ronan. Although the two women did work together, there is no evidence that their relationship was anything more than as friends and fellow fossil enthusiasts.

Buildings in Belgrave Square today
(Image source: “Belgrave Square” by avail licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

An Inspiring Woman

  • A key person she did inspire was her husband!
  • Early in their married life, he took up a sporting life, enjoying fox-hunting and other country pleasures. She urged him to abandon these and take up more intellectual interests – possibly because he was running out of money. The couple moved to London where they met Humphry Davy, who also encouraged Roderick Murchison to take up a scientific career.
  • In Charlotte Murchison’s lifetime, universities did not admit women. It was therefore unusual for them to attend scientific lectures. In 1832, Charlotte Murchison was one of the trailblazing group of women who insisted on being allowed to attend lectures given by the geologist, Charles Lyell, at King’s College, London.
  • Charlotte Murchison was also one of the few women who, when her health permitted, attended the annual meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Despite major obstacles – mainly her gender, but also her poor health, Charlotte Murchison persisted in pursuing her passion for geology throughout her life
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