Maria Matilda Gordon (née Ogilvie), often called Maria Ogilvie Gordon

Geologist

Maria Ogilvie Gordon portrait from M Wachtler

Credit: M. Wachtler

  • BORN 30th April 1864, Monymusk, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, UK
  • DIED 24th June 1939, London, England, UK
  • WORKED Dolomites, South Tyrol, Italy
  • HONOURS Became a Dame of the British Empire (DBE) in 1935 “for public work on behalf of women and children”;  Awarded a Lyell Medal in 1932 for her services to geology

Artistic Connections

Maria Ogilvie Gordon originally planned to be a pianist, and when she was 18, went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music. After some study there, she changed her mind, and studied geology instead. Music remained an interest all the rest of her life.

Education

School at Edinburgh Educational Institute for Girls (later called Edinburgh Ladies College, then Mary Erskine School); Higher education at Heriot-Watt College, Edinburgh, then University College, London where she gained her BSc in 1890.

Maria Ogilvie Gordon then wanted to study for a doctorate, but universities in the UK at that time did not admit women for postgraduate studies. She was finally permitted to attend the University of Munich, she was still not allowed to sit in the lecture theatre, but had to listen from outside the room.

She still managed to gain her PhD in 1900, with distinction on geology, palaeontology and zoology.

Occupations

Geologist
Maria Ogilvie Gordon took a keen interest in corals, and considered becoming a zoologist in order to study them more closely. Shortly after her arrival in Munich, she travelled to the Dolomites, and there indeed she saw corals – but in fossilised form. That decided her career path, and she began what became her major geological work –  the study of the the geology of the Dolomites, specialising in fossils of corals and molluscs. Before she produced her own theories, it was believed that the high peaks of the Dolomites were ancient coral reefs, unchanged for millennia. Her own theory, formed from evidence she observed in the rocks, that folding action and thrust planes formed the peaks, was eventually accepted by the scientific community.

Champion of Causes related to Women and Children
Maria Ogilvie Gordon held office in several organisations which campaigned for improvements in economic, political and social conditions for women. Examples: Honorary President of both the Associated Women’s Friendly Society and the National Women’s Citizens’ Association; President of the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland; Vice Chair of the International Council of Women. Also, in 1919, she formed the Council for the Representation of Women in the League of Nations.

Public Offices
First female Chair of a London Borough Court
One of the first female Justices of the Peace

Scientific Achievement

  • Pioneering female scientist

Maria Ogilvie Gordon was the first woman to receive a DSc from the University of London (1893). She was also the first woman to be awarded a PhD from the University of Munich (1900). She was in the first group of women who were able to be elected to the Geological Society of London, and one of the first four women to be elected as Fellows of the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh. Several bodies throughout the world awarded her with honorary degrees or fellowships, including the Geological Society of Vienna; the Science Department, Trento, Italy; the Universities of Edinburgh, Sydney and Innsbruck.

  • Study of fossil corals

She conducted her 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. From her own research, she described 345 species of molluscs and corals in the South Tyrol. Today, 1,400 are known, but she was the first to recognise their importance.

  • Author of scientific publications

She published more than 30 scientific papers, many of them in German scientific journals, as well as a major and definitive 400 page monograph on the geology of regions of the South Tyrol, Das Grödener-Fassa- und Enneberggebiet in den Südtiroler Dolomiten (1927). Recognising the appeal of the subject to non-specialists, she also produced 2 geological guidebooks which could be followed by visitors to the area.

Did You Know?

During one of her tramps in the Dolomites, a bolt of lightning killed two cows standing near her. She was said to have a fear of thunderstorms for the rest of her life.

Maria Ogilvie Gordon’s interest in corals prompted her to give her elder daughter the name Coral, a very unusual girl’s name at the time.

In 2006, a species of fossilised fern was named Gordonopteris lorigae after both her and another female scientist and explorer of the Dolomites, Carmela Loriga Broglio.

Geology remained her primary interest, and near the end of her life she said, “The work was a joy, and I look back at expecting discovery at every corner as my happiest time.”

An Inspiring Woman

To learn about the geology of the Dolomites, she trekked alone in the mountainous terrain, staying in mountain huts,  collecting fossils, examining the strata, and writing up her results, which included a 78 page article for the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society in 1893.  In the meantime, still during her studies for a PhD, she returned home, married a physician from Aberdeen, and gave birth to two children!

Her major work was written between 1900 and 1914, and 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 Germany in 1920, the manuscript had disappeared, and she set to completely rewrite it, resulting in its successful publication in 1927.

Always a strong supporter of rights for women, Maria Ogilvie Gordon believed that men, women and children should have equal rights, and she took on several roles in organisations which promoted these aims.

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