Isabella Gordon

Marine Biologist

  • BORN 18th May 1901, Keith, Banffshire, Scotland, UK
  • DIED 11th May 1988, Carlisle, England, UK
  • WORKED British Museum (Natural History), now the Natural History Museum, London, England
  • HONOURS Awarded OBE in Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 1963; Was made the first Honorary Member of the Carcinological Society of Japan in 1961 – the only non-Japanese member at the time; Her colleagues tried to persuade the Royal Society to appoint her as a Fellow, but this application was rejected, despite her considerable scientific achievements

Entry by Catherine Booth

Artistic Connections

She sketched and illustrated specimens to accompany her notes and papers. Her watercolour illustrations, some done at Millport, Isle of Cumbrae, Scotland, are especially attractive




Attended Keith Grammar School; Obtained BSc from Aberdeen University; Gained PhD from Imperial College, University of London in 1926; Awarded DSc from University of Aberdeen in 1928


Research Fellow

Between 1926-early 1928, she carried out research in marine laboratories in the USA and in Jamaica. Her work there involved the study of echinoderms, sea creatures with five part symmetry round a central point, which include spiny sea urchins and sand dollars.

Assistant Keeper, then Principal Scientific Officer and Carcinologist, in charge of Crustacea Collections, British Museum (Natural History)

The word Crustacea covers all kinds of creatures like crabs, lobsters and shrimps which have hard shells and several pairs of legs, and usually live in water. Carcinology is the study of crustaceans. From 1928-1966, Dr Gordon was the crustacea specialist in what we now call the Natural History Museum in London. Over her lifetime, she became one of the top experts throughout the world in this field.

Editor of specialist journal

From its beginnings in 1960 until she had to resign owing to ill health, Isabella Gordon edited the peer reviewed international journal, Crustaceana, which publishes research papers on all aspects of crustacea.

Isabella Gordon’s comments on publication

Scientific Achievements

  • The British Museum (Natural History) has one of the largest collections of crustacea in the world, holding huge numbers of specimens preserved in jars, catalogued and labelled. When she was in charge, Isabella Gordon knew more about these than anyone else. Even after she officially retired, she continued to research and study these, writing and publishing well over 100 scientific papers on specific creatures, often illustrated with her own sketches.
  • Other scientists regularly asked her for help – either to identify a specimen they didn’t recognise, or to give advice and comments on their work. She was known for her very detailed and comprehensive answers, and even allowed others to use her illustrations in their publications. There are many papers written by others which include acknowledgments to her.
  • She frequently gave lectures and contributed papers to conferences held in other countries, such as the USA, Mexico, Spain, Portugal and Denmark, and collaborated with marine biologists in several countries.
  • One of her most important overseas projects came in 1961, when she was invited to visit Japan for several weeks, to attend the 60th birthday celebrations of Emperor Hirohito. Before the visit, she arranged for specimens from the British Museum to be sent over to join the Emperor’s own collection in an exhibition. The first venue for this exhibition was in a Tokyo department store! The Emperor was himself a keen marine biologist, and Isabella Gordon spent over 2 hours in discussion with him on that topic, and gave a lecture to a large audience.
  • When Emperor Hirohito made a State Visit to London for 3 days in 1971, Isabella Gordon was one of the scientists chosen to talk to him during his visits to various scientific institutions.

Did You Know?

Isabella Gordon’s parents were unmarried when she was born, which is unimportant nowadays, but in 1901, would have been considered shameful, and would certainly have affected Isabella’s own early life. They also had very little money, and it was only because she was awarded a scholarship that she was able to continue studying after the age of 14.

She had a keen sense of humour, and wrote a witty limerick with a reference to her own Scottish accent as a riposte to a colleague’s own limerick, which is reproduced in her Wikipedia entry

Isabella Gordon was very particular about precision and accuracy when she prepared a paper for publication, and would often require amendments to her proofs.

Having suffered a stroke in later life which paralysed her right side, she taught herself to write using her left hand so that she could continue to correspond with her friends and fellow scientists

An Inspiring Woman

Isabella showed that a difficult early life did not prevent her working hard to achieve her ambition. That makes her an excellent role model for young people today, who may be struggling in adverse circumstances.

She did not receive as much recognition in her own country as she deserved, but certainly became internationally respected as a specialist in her field. Her colleagues named her as the Grand Old Lady of Carcinology.

Isabella remained very modest all her life, but was always ready to help anyone who asked for advice, and seemed to enjoy witnessing their achievements