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.)

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…]

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…]

Links on the Travesty that is Fifty Shades of Grey

Oh, how I hate to see that dreck making bank at the theatre. Thing is, erotica for women is so thin on the ground in popular culture that crap like this gets made into a movie, whereas the quality stuff like The Boss series doesn’t. However. Let’s hope the FSOG horror show opens up the market for better things (and full male nudity in film, which I hear didn’t happen in a film meant for horny heterosexual women, WTF?!). In the meantime, those of us who hate FSOG can continue to say why it’s so horrible. Other than the fact it won’t show us whole nekkid dudes, I mean.

Jenny saw the movie. She live-tweeted it, if you want her on-the-ground impressions, and reviewed it thoroughly. She also has these excellent posts, which I wished to commend to your attention: [Read more…]

Emmylou Harris is a Feminist. Huzzah!

So, remember that conversation about country music we had a while back? It got me to recalling my country music days, which began with my parents and lasted until I got introduced to heavy metal. I don’t listen to much anymore, but after that post and the discussion around it, I began trying to recall the names of female country singers I’d loved. And Emmylou Harris came to mind. [Read more…]

An Informative Tour of Victorian English Women’s Struggles for Equality

Have you encountered an MRA spouting nonsense about how women lorded it over men in Victorian England, and need a rebuttal? Perhaps you’ve encountered Christian patriarchy advocates who are waxing lyrical about how good the ladies had it when they were under male authority, and wish to disabuse them of some ridiculous notions? Then you need to procure yourself a copy of Mary Lyndon Shanley’s Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England at once.

Cover of the book Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England.

This is a slender tome packed full of eye-popping information on how married women were treated by law in that romantic era, and their decades-long struggle to be treated as people, not property. She tells the story through a series of Acts of Parliament. If, like me, you’re a sucker for law drama, you’ll savor this method thoroughly. Even if that’s not your thing, you’ll encounter too many fascinating feminists in infuriating situations to care. [Read more…]

The Unstoppable Force of Huxley, Darwin, and Frances Power Cobbe

Reading this book on Victorian England’s marriage laws is slow going, because I keep running into fascinating women. Mary Lyndon Shanley quotes a snippet of their work, and then I end up haring off after the source and promptly getting immersed in that instead. I made it to Chapter Two, and I did intend to get all the way to Three, but then I ran into Frances Power Cobbe. And I had to read her article “Criminals, idiots, women and minors” in its entirety. It is so full of good things that I will probably quote from it even more. The woman was a caution. She may have been an anti-vivisectionist, but she completely eviscerates the laws against married women owning their own property. She impales her opponents’ arguments on their own logic before she finishes them off with several master strokes. It’s just amazeballs.

Since we’re just past Darwin Day, I figured I’d share this bit with you. It seems appropriate. [Read more…]

Researching 19th Century Sexism with Cat, Plus Bonus Squee

Over the last couple of days, Misha’s been insisting on me making a blanket cave for her to sleep in. She likes to pick random inconvenient times, like when I’m asleep, or about to grab the computer and start typing. I could tell her no, but snuggling with a warm kitty is not to be turned down. I mean, honestly, look at how adorable she is.

Image shows Misha lying with her cheek on her paws. A bit of my red shirt is visible beside her. The blanket is overhead.

Snoozin in teh warms.

 

She’s actually preventing me from avoiding research, because that’s pretty much all I can do when I’m having to make a cave roof with one arm. I might be able to type, but it would be slow and complicated. And I have a 19th century MRAnt to dissect. [Read more…]

Six Snubbed Women in Science

Someone (if only I could remember who!) recently linked this 2013 NatGeo article: 6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism. Rosalind Franklin is there, of course, but there are also women I’d never heard of: Esther Lederberg, Chien-Shiung Wu, and Nettie Stevens. The list hasn’t got any geologists, alas, but physics and biology are well-represented with one shout-out to astronomy.

Image shows Chinese scentist Chien-Shiung Wu smiling at the camera in an old black-and-white photo.

Chien-Shiung Wu. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m happy to be living in a time when women are finally beginning to get the recognition they deserve, but there’s a long way to go. I’ll be bringing back our Pioneering Women in the Geosciences series soon, now that summer field season is over. We won’t let their contributions be forgotten.

 

Originally published at Rosetta Stones.