Posts tagged ‘International council of Women’

Oct 3, 2021

In my own country I never count at all. I am made to feel a complete outsider: Maria Ogilvie-Gordon pioneering geologist

She was a scientist – a geological pioneer and a driver for the emancipation of women. She classified the geological layers of the Dolomites, the structure of corals found there and explained the powerful earth movements that erupted and folded those rocks into their dramatic peaks. She was Maria Ogilvie from Monymusk in Aberdeenshire and her work in the mountains of Austria and Italy would prove ground-breaking.

Maria Ogilvie, affectionately known as May, was born on 30 April 1864 into a family steeped in education. She was musical; played the piano and graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London before having a change of heart and entering the University of London to study science. Graduating with her Doctor of Science degree – the first geology degree awarded in London to a woman, she took herself abroad, to Germany to continue her work in that field.

An application to study at Berlin University was turned down because it didn’t accept women and neither did the University of Munich but she was able to use some of its facilities to continue her research through support of its professor of geology and palaeontology, Karl Alfred von Zittel. Eventually the Ludwig Maximilians-University of Munich did agreed to let Maria study for her doctorate and in 1900 she was the first women awarded a PhDs from Munich. She took it with highest honours. Back home Dr. Maria Ogilvie married John Gordon, a physician from Aberdeen.   

In addition to being an accomplished musician and scientist, May Ogilvie was an active campaigner for the rights of women and children. Hardly surprising given her continuing struggle to be taken seriously in the world of science and male-dominated educational establishments. Her achievements mapping and defining the rock structure of the Dolomites are all the greater for the circumstances in which she was forced to carry out her fieldwork in this perilous terrain; her efforts disparaged and mainly carried out without assistance. Fortunately, coming from rural Aberdeenshire she was fairly familiar with mountains. The Ogilvies owned a holiday home, a very grand holiday home, in Ballater, close to Lochnagar, and with the Cairngorms virtually on her doorstep she had some hill climbing experience though not at the same level of difficulty to be found in the Dolomites.

The Ogilvies had money. May’s father was headmaster of Robert Gordon’s Hospital, later College – an uncle was a chief inspector of schools, another the rector of the established church training college in Aberdeen and another was headmaster of George Watson’s College in Edinburgh. At the age of nine, May was sent to Edinburgh, to the Merchant Company School’s Ladies College. From there at the age of eighteen she went to London to study music at the Royal Academy of Music. She matriculated but music did not satisfy her yearning for learning and she returned to Edinburgh, to the home of the first modern geologist, fellow-Scot, James Hutton, and to Heriot-Watt University where one of her brothers was Principal. There she embarked on a Batchelor of Science degree, specialising in geology, botany and zoology, which she completed in London, graduating in 1893.

Schluderbach region where May Ogilvie did her fieldwork

The following year May, paleontologist and biologist, sailed to the continent, travelling to Germany where she began her geological research in the hazardous slopes of the Alps. To get to up into the mountains for a full day’s work meant rising in the very early hours of the morning day after day. Exhausting as this was she also had to deal with rock samples gathered each day and without assistance from the university she either carried them down by herself or relied on help from some of the local people she lived among. The area of Schluderbach  in the Cave Stone Valley and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Northeast Italy was off the beaten-track with virtually no made roads so moving around was difficult and facilities were absent but Maria Ogilvie was a spirited and determined woman and she persevered. She explored, mapped and studied the area of South Tyrol and Dolomites, defining its structure and fossils, presenting her findings in a series of academic papers written in both German and English. She became fluent in German and translated several texts including those of Professor Zittel of the University of Munich, one of the few academics who recognised her talents and who encouraged her. She continued working with Professor von Zittel at his institute and through him was in correspondence with other eminent scientists such as Archibald Geikie, William Topley and Charles Lapworth.  

The peaks of the Dolomites

Eventually Maria was accepted by the University of Munich to complete a PhD; the first woman to do so and succeeding with the highest honours. Slowly Dr. Maria Ogilvie found herself being taken more seriously as her breakthrough findings found greater circulation in science circles. More seriously but not too seriously. In 1925 the determinedly sexist fellows at the Royal Society in London refused to publish her Dolomite geological findings so Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon translated them into German and published them. At least in Germany and Austria there were some geologists who respected her expertise as a geologist.

May Ogilvie-Gordon resented how her work and achievements went largely unrecognised and commented upon in the UK. These slights because of her sex were never forgotten and as an elderly woman she criticised the Geological Society of London for discriminating against her when, finally, her contribution to science was recognised and she was awarded the Lyell Medal in 1932.

Her husband, John, said of her –

It is a lonely furrow you are ploughing, May; for your own sake I wish you had chosen some other interest for your hard work.

Years later with that in mind Maria referred to that lonely furrow –

It was a lonely furrow that I ploughed in my fieldwork abroad. A Britisher – and a woman at that – strayed into a remote and mountainous frontier territory between Austria and Italy, a region destined afterwards to be fought over, inch by inch, in the Great War… In point of fact 17 years passed before I received the first visit of an experienced geologist in the field…Another 15 years passed and the War had taken place before I received the visit of a British Geologist – the late Dr. John W. Evans of this Society, who came at the kind suggestion of Professor Watts in response to a request of mine.

Having spent much time in Germany, including after her marriage and having children – the whole family were often found clambering up Alpine mountains – May Ogilvie-Gordon returned to Scotland during the Great War, abandoning her work and her latest research paper on the eve of its publication, Das Grodener, Fassa, und Ennerberggebiet in den Sudtiroler Dolomiten. When in 1920 she returned to Germany – her husband had died in Aberdeen the year before – she discovered the publishing house was a victim of war and her scientific paper, photographic plates and maps vanished. There was nothing for it but to re-do the work and rewrite from scratch. Dauting as this must have been it was worth it in the end for the work was celebrated as “a monument in the field of Alpine Geology”.

Honours did come, eventually. She was recognised with an honorary membership of the Vienna Geological Society (the first woman to achieve this), was an honorary correspondent of the Geological Survey of Austria, the Universities of Trento, Innsbruck, Sydney and Edinburgh and the Linnaean Society but honours were slow in coming because for most of her life her work was largely ignored.

The misogyny she experienced throughout her career undoubtedly spurred Ogilvie-Gordon to dedicate much of her time trying to improve the lot of women and children. Bear in mind May was 74 years old before all women, women like her over 21, were given the right to vote in the UK. She felt she was making a difference and of her social work she said:

 The work was a joy and I look back on the days of expecting discovery at every corner as my happiest time.

As a representative of the International Council of Women Dr. May Ogilvie-Gordon spoke out against enduring slavery; domestic slavery where women were treated like merchandise in many parts of the world, behaviour that was degrading and evil.

At the National Council of Women in Britain Ogilvie-Gordon promoted the positive merits of film as an instrument for disseminating public information and a means of sourcing social information to feed into government for determining policy on political and civil rights. She was critical of negative influences of film where children were able to watch what were termed adult films – shoot ‘em ups, G-Men type cinema movies, and she advocated the inauguration of film production for child-friendly pictures.  

May Ogilvie-Gordon in 1900

Working children was another cause that deeply concerned her. Practically throughout Maria’s life children were expected to work and contribute to their family’s incomes. Young peoples’ and children’s labour was frequently unregulated and through the Child Welfare Committee Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon was involved scrutinising laws affecting their employment and in establishing Juvenile Employment Exchanges.

A Handful of Employments was published by long-gone Rosemount Press in Aberdeen in 1908 and intended to be a guide for girls and boys entering trades, industries and professions. As its author Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon itemised a long list of occupations and training that might be involved, pay and so on. She wrote of her regret that factories churning out products had replaced small-scale craft methods of production, regarding factory work as demoralising with operatives monotonously feeding materials into machines. Ogilvie-Gordon was critical, too, of girls taking up factory work because that meant they tended to lose household skills such as domestic economy, sewing, cooking, parenting and so on.

Both for boys and girls Maria Ogilvie-Gordon saw education as vital to their well-being and advocated it be built into their working day. She believed it was essential that girls and boys had choice over the work they were to take up rather than being pushed into any old job by their parents whose main interests were getting additional income coming into the home.

In A Handful of Employments she drew up tables of occupations for school leavers, listed alphabetically and easy to consult. Bobbin-turning, for example – both boys and girls at 16 could expect to be paid 6 shillings – note the same wage. Not all wages were equal between the sexes. A fourteen-year-old girl working in a brewhouse earned a shilling a week less than a boy.  

Dr. Maria M. Ogilvie-Gordon lived an exceptional life filled with academic and scientific successes which she earned through strong resolve, tackling each and every barrier placed in her way. She was helped by her intelligence and spirited personality and the conviction that women should have the same rights as men and be treated equally in society. She was also helped in achieving her ambitions by having a cushion of money behind her. For women without May Ogilvie’s resources there has always been and still are additional hurdles of prejudice (those of class, race, background) they must first overcome to begin to be accepted in a man-centred world. Women’s equality had a long way to run across Europe but the Continent was where Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon’s intellect and contribution to science were first recognised while back in the UK the world of science didn’t want to know and her research and achievements were ignored by British geologists – a male clique.

In my own country I never count at all. I am made to feel a complete outsider.

(Maria Ogilvie-Gordon, 1929)

Additional personal details

Maria M. Ogilvie, D.Sc. married John Gordon, M.D., on 27 November 1895 at the Council Hall in Gordon’s College, Aberdeen. The bride wore an ivory silk dress with a spray of orange blossom on the shoulder. The groom presumably wore a dark suit. To mark the occasion, pupils at the school were given a half-holiday. The family lived at 1 Rubislaw Terrace in Aberdeen.

Dr. Maria M. Ogilvie-Gordon died in London in 1939. Her remains were taken back to Aberdeen and interred in the grave of her late husband, infant daughter and son, at Allenvale cemetery on by the River Dee.   

A brief report of her funeral in a local newspaper mentioned that among wreaths were ones sent by Lord Aberdeen, Lady this and that, the National Council of Women of Great Britain and the Scottish Standing Committee.  

Obituaries of Dr. Ogilvie-Gordon appeared in various journals and publications, such as Nature and the International Woman Suffrage News paying tribute to the eminent scientist and feminist, Dame Maria Ogilvie-Gordon.

Maria and John Gordon named one of their daughters, Coral, to the astonishment of many.

Gordonopteris lorigae

In 2000 a new fossil fern genus discovered in Triassic sediments of the Dolomites was named after Maria Ogilvie-Gordon, Gordonopteris lorigae.

A selection of achievements:

  • 1893 First woman to receive a DSc from University of London
  • 1900 First woman to receive a PhD from the University of Munich University
  •          (with highest honours)
  • 1901 English translation from the German of Professor Zittel’s History of
  •         Geology and Palaeontology to the End of the Nineteenth Century
  • 1908 Publishes Handbook of Employment for Boys and Girls (Aberdeen)
  • 1916 President of the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland
  • 1919 Formed the Council for the Representation of Women in the League of
  •          Nations
  • 1919 Among first women accepted as members of the Geological Society of
  •          London
  • 1920 First JP and chairman of the Marylebone Court of Justice in London
  • 1928 First geological guidebooks to the Dolomites published
  • 1928 Honorary membership of the University of Innsbruck
  • 1928 Honorary correspondent of the Geological Survey of Austria
  • 1931 First female honorary member of the Geological Survey of Austria
  •          Institute
  • 1932 Lyell Medal from Geological Society of London
  • 1935 Made Dame of the British Empire
  • 1935 Given Honorary LL.B degree from University of Edinburgh