Mary Horner Lyell: “A Monument of Patience”

You never hear of the other Lyell. Sir Charles, you know quite well: he set the infant science of geology firmly on its feet and inspired Charles Darwin. But there’s another Lyell who was a geologist, and without her, Charles Lyell would have found his work far more difficult, if not impossible. When he married Mary Horner, he pledged himself to a lifelong scientific partner.

Portrait of Lady Lyell, after a crayon drawing by George Richmond, R.A.

Portrait of Lady Lyell, after a crayon drawing by George Richmond, R.A. Image from the Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, bart. Vol II.

Why don’t we know her?

Charles provided some insight when speaking of mathematician Mary Somerville. If she’d married a fellow mathematician, he mused, “we should never have heard of her work. She would have merged it in her husband’s, and passed it off as his.” It’s possible he had his own Mary in mind when he said that.

Mary Horner Lyell (1808-1873) was surrounded by geology from the beginning of her life. Her father, Professor Leonard Horner, taught geology in England and Germany, and became a member of the Geological Society. He hired tutors for his sons and daughters, ensuring all of his children had an excellent education. That education allowed Mary to become a conchologist and her younger sister, Katherine, to pursue a career as a botanist. Both of them were well-respected and accomplished in their fields. Both of them also married a Lyell: Katherine married Charles’s younger brother, Henry.

Marrying Charles didn’t confine Mary to the domestic life of a housewife: far from it. She traveled the world with her husband as his partner in geology. She did the packing: their clothes, his geologic equipment and specimens. While Charles investigated, she sketched and painted the outcrops, geologic structures, and cross-sections they discovered. When circumstances prevented her from going out into the field with him, Charles didn’t neglect her. He created detailed journals of his investigations for her, and wrote affectionate letters beginning, “My dearest Mary…”

Mary wasn’t just an asset in the field. She helped him with research and cataloged the rocks, minerals and fossils they collected. She acted as his scribe and interpreter: her fluency in French and German allowed her to translate letters from European geologists, and she learned Spanish and Swedish as well. Charles’s eyesight became less up to the task of correspondence, she ensured he stayed current and connected.

When Darwin and Mr. Lyell discussed evolution, Mary was an active part of the conversation. When Darwin needed barnacles, she supplied them (“I am much obliged for the Barnacles,” he wrote to her, and then launched into a discussion of the glacial geology of the Scottish glens. In a letter a few years previously, he had described Mary as “a monument of patience” for putting up with his and Sir Charles’s “unsophisticated geologytalk – it seems that by the time she began slipping him barnacles, he’d figured out she actually enjoyed this geology stuff).

Mary also carried on a lively correspondence with another geological wife: she and Elizabeth Agassiz discussed the glacial geology of South America in their letters back and forth.

Her husband was fully supportive of women who wanted to participate in science. He insisted that women be allowed to attend his lectures. Mary didn’t limit herself to just his talks: she attended special lectures at the London Geological Society with keen interest.

Though her contemporaries and later historians too often overlooked her, it was clear she understood geology thoroughly. And she was certainly a scientist in her own right. In 1854, she collected and studied land snails in the Canary Islands, her own version of Darwin’s finches. In another age, her work may not have been so merged with and overshadowed by her husband’s. She was a geologist to the core. If Charles Lyell was one of geology’s fathers, Mary Horner Lyell was certainly one of its mothers, an extraordinary and dedicated woman we need to remember.

Mary Lyell later in life. Image courtesy Darwin and Gender.

Mary Lyell later in life. Image via Darwin and Gender.

Previous posts in this series:

Pioneering Women in the Geosciences: Introduction.

Zonia Baber: “The Public May Be Brought to Understand the Importance of Geography.”

 

References:

Ashcraft, Donna Musialowski (1998): Women’s Work: A Survey of Scholarship by and About Women. Binghampton, NY: The Hawthorn Press.

Hardman, Phillippa: “Talking to Naturalists.” Darwin and Gender: the Blog. Last accessed 4-25-2013.

Hestmark, Geir (2011): “The meaning of ’metamorphic’ – Charles & Mary Lyell in Norway, 1837.” Norwegian Journal of Geology, Vol 91, pp. 247-275.

Ogilive, Marilyn B. (1986): Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century. Boston, Massachussets: MIT.

Somerville, Mary (2001): Queen of Science. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd.

 

(Originally published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.)

God’s Old Earth Curriculum Chapter 2: In Which We Get Our Earth Systems On

I’m seeing a pattern: the first paragraph of each of Greg’s chapters is all about establishing the Christian cred. Like so:

Our planet is perfectly designed by God to function using the physical laws that He set in place. Through these laws, the earth is constantly being modified. These laws can be seen operating in several key systems that He designed.

Image is a detail of God pointing from the Sistine Chapel. Caption says, "Look at that earth! I totally made that."

From there, God goes away, and science takes over. [Read more…]

Zonia Baber: “The Public May Be Brought to Understand the Importance of Geography”

Zonia Baber (1862-1955)  is one of those people you aspire to be and fear you will never manage to become even half as good as.

Zonia Baber (1862-1955). Outstanding geographer and teacher. Image courtesy Peace Monuments Around the World.

Zonia Baber (1862-1955). Outstanding geographer and teacher. Image courtesy Peace Monuments Around the World.

And I only chose her as our first Pioneering Woman in Geology because of her name. I had this list of women I knew next to nothing about, and I hovered a finger over it, and said, “There. That’s an interesting name. Let’s start with her.” Then I found out she was a geographer, and thought, “Oh, dear.” A teacher, when I wanted women who worked in the field. Oh, no. An American when I’d hoped to start with a different country. Oh, bugger. But Mary Arizona “Zonia” Baber? Still couldn’t resist the name. So I read past the first sentence in the Wikipedia article, and promptly fell in love. Co-founded the Geographic Society of Chicago, which was modeled after the National Geographic society? Awesome! Involved in social issues? Brilliant! Feminist, even so! And then I found out that, in addition to the whole geography teacher thing, she’d got her start in geology. [Read more…]

Moaning Men of the Victorian Age: Breach of Promise Whine Needs Cheese

In our first installment, we saw how Mr. William Austin, Victorian MRA Esq., was being terribly oppressed by all those women with their miniscule hard-won rights. But he didn’t give us actual examples. He spoke in sweeping generalities that were, on the whole, pretty meaningless, especially when you contrast his problems with the actual conditions women in the 19th century faced.

Here’s the first time he stops mouthing mushy nonsense and mentions something specific: [Read more…]

Pioneering Women in the Geosciences: Introduction

When asked for early geologists, all of us can rattle off names. Some of us may remember Nicolas Steno, the father of stratigraphy. We certainly mention James Hutton (father of deep time) and Charles Lyell (father of modern geology). Some of us would even throw Charles Darwin’s name in there for his work on volcanic islands and coral reefs.

Geology has many fathers, and we know them well. But few of us can name its mothers. Mothers who sacrificed far more than most of the men did – many women could only succeed in the geosciences if they remained unmarried and childless (and some organizations, like the British Geological Survey, made that a formal requirement). They fought discrimination and doubt. They worked hard for a fraction of the recognition their male colleagues got. Despite all the decks stacked against them, they made important contributions to our knowledge of the world. Forgetting the women who left us geoscience legacies is intolerable. We need to remember. [Read more…]

Happy National Science Day, Everybody!

Guess what day it is in India. That’s right, it’s National Science Day! You can check out their Facebook page to see some of the events going on, and Wikipedia has a brief explanation here. Did you know it not only showcases current science, but honors Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman’s discovery of the Raman effect? To which I, as an ordained minister of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, can only say, “R’amen!” Of course. Happy National Science Day, India!

[Read more…]

Mystery Flora: Minty-Leaved Pretties

Here are some more lovelies from that same Oregon trip that brought you the starry lavender delights and the lovebugs.

Image shows a tall stem bearing clusters of pinkish-purple flowers and bright green leaves that look a bit like spearmint. It's climbing against a mossy rock.

Mystery Flora I

I have a feeling I could spend the rest of my life just shuffling around Washington and Oregon, and never run out of new sets of flowers. I won’t run low on geology to eyeball, either. Between these things and sporking Christianist textbooks, I should be able to keep these pages well fed.

Another photo of the flowers, showing a cluster surrounded by the leaves. The leaves are in clusters of three.

Mystery Flora II

Speaking of sporkings, my leisure reading is Mouse’s snark at the Left Behind kids series. I have no idea why I like to send myself to sleep by reading about some of the world’s worst books, but I’ve got an idle idea I may get some geology out of them. A tradition started in the comments at Slactivist of renaming Nicolae Carpathia. Since his last name was taken from mountains, people would call him Nicky Rockies and things of that nature. Mouse has carried on that tradition, only she uses some rather obscure-to-Americans mountains and ranges. I’m half-tempted to go back through and blog them. What do you say? Would you like a series introducing you to some mountains of the world?

Image is a wide view showing the flower stems growing against the large rock.

Mystery Flora III

Because the kids’ books are short, Mouse has gotten further along than Fred has with the main series, so we’re already on Wormwood here. I about choked the night I read about it, because according to LaHaye, Wormwood is a big ol’ comet made of – wait for it – rotting wood. Yep. Rotten outspace wood ball, that’s Wormwood, according to those who don’t actually read the Bible literally but think they do, and sometimes take things literally in really odd ways.

It’s a good thing I haven’t done any drugs lately, because that would’ve made me sure I’d done something permanent and terrible to my brain.

Image is a close up of one of the flower clusters, showing full blooms and buds all packed together.

Mystery Flora IV

I suppose that’s why I read this stuff when I could be reading something better: I don’t have to pay close attention, so it’s great for going to sleep with, but at the same time, there are these delightful absurdities that are howlingly funny – until you realize there are people in the world who believe this is an actual thing that is going to happen in the very near future. Ow, my brain.

Speaking of ow, I took a thorough look at that Coulee conspiracy book Trebuchet bought for us, and had to put it down and go do something else. It’s terrible. I’m not sure if it’s going to end up being funny-terrible or terrible-awful when we’re done. It saddens me that there are people who actually think this way, and are earnest about it, and put their thoughts so-called on paper in an effort to make other people believe them. Being so bloody paranoid and narrow-minded can’t make for a very satisfying intellectual life. It’s sad to come across such stunted minds.

Ah, well. Forget that for now. We’ll face it soon enough. For now, flowers.

Image shows a few clusters of the flowers against the rock. A bit of sunshine has emboldened their colors.

Mystery Flora V

That’s much better.

Fundamentals of Fungi: Discovery

Yes, I know you will probably tell me that most of this is lichen, not fungi, but I kinda lump them in the same general category. Otherwise, you’d end up with a series titled, “Likin’ the Lichen,” and then you would want to smack me, which would be uncomfortable for us all.

I think you’ve identified these lovely specimens before, or at least something similar to them, but these look just different enough that I’m not sure if they’re the blue-gray beauties in their prime or something altogether different.

Image shows a moss-covered log with charcoal gray growths with scalloped edges.

Mystery fungi I

There will be real fungi later, too!

[Read more…]

Adventures in Christianist Earth Science Education VII: Awash in Creationist Nonsense

Take your seasickness prevention pills and weigh anchor, my darlings. We are embarking on a long voyage, and I’m afraid it won’t be the lovely salt sea, but an ocean of creationist bilge we be sailin’. BJU has got a lot to say about oceanography. A good portion of it is utter bunkum. And there’s three bloody chapters of this shite.

Image shows a cat in a cardboard pirate ship. Caption says, "I comes to plunder yer living room."

The wrong starts out strong with Dr. Emil Silvestru, a creationist speleologist from Romania. He started his career as a secular scientist, then jumped into Christianity with both feet and became a young earth creationist. The quality of his “reasoning” can be assessed by the following explanation: [Read more…]