Charles Lyell called her timid. Benjamin Disraeli called her the silent wife of a stiff geological prig. Yet Charlotte Murchison was the woman who opened up the lecture theatres of Kings College London to female geology students, who collected fossils across the UK and continental Europe despite relapsing malaria, and who is credited with the making of one the most lauded careers in 19th Century geology — that of her husband, Roderick Impey Murchison. Charlotte Murchison (1788-1869) was clearly more than just someone’s shy and quiet wife.
Charlotte Murchison (nee Hugonin) was born on April 18, 1788 in Hampshire. She was the daughter of General Francis Hugonin and Charlotte Hugonin, a skillful florist and botanist. In 1815, she met Roderick Impey Murchison (1792–1871). At that time he was a soldier that had campaigned against the French in Spain. Murchison left the army – after eight years of service – and married Charlotte on 15 August of the same year. Shortly after the marriage, the couple travelled throughout Europe from 1816 to 1818, and it was on this trip – in the spring of 1817, while in Rome – that Charlotte caught malaria. This illness would affect her throughout the rest of her life.
It was also in Rome that they met science writer Mary Somerville, who became a friend of the couple. Mary Somerville wrote about Charlotte: “Mrs Murchison was an amiable accomplished woman, drew prettily and what was rare at the time she had studied science, especially geology and it was chiefly owing to her example that her husband turned his mind to those pursuits in which he afterwards obtained such distinction.”1
Indeed, at that time Roderick was more interested in fox-hunting. But with some help from Humphry Davy, Charlotte turned his attentions to geology. His first paper, presented to the Geological Society in December 1825, is thought to be the result of joint fieldwork carried out with Charlotte. In 1825 the couple also went on a field trip along the southern coast of England. In Lyme Regis she spent time sketching the cliffs along the coast and collecting Jurassic fossil specimens from the beaches. She also collected with, and became a very good friend of, Mary Anning.
Charlotte Murchison’s fossil collections were studied by the likes of James de Carle Sowerby (who named an ammonite after her – which seems only fair, as it was Charlotte who collected it!) and husband of Mary Morland Buckland, William Buckland. Charles Lyell was also a great friend and in 1828, the couple embarked on a long journey around Europe with Charles Lyell where Charlotte collected fossils, made geological sketches and notes, and processed and recorded the fossils collected by the party. When Charles Lyell refused to let women attend his lectures in Geology at Kings College London, Charlotte and Mary Somerville were part of the 300-strong crowd of men and women that responded by turning up to his second lecture. It is Charlotte’s presence that is said to have resulted in Lyell’s capitulation.
When her mother passed away in 1838, Charlotte inherited a significant fortune which allowed her to finance and support her husband’s career. Their parties in London – sometimes for as many as 700 politicians, dignitaries and scientists – were renowned, and aimed to promote the sciences’ standing in society (particularly Geology, and possibly even more particularly Roderick Murchison’s career). Charlotte’s abilities as a hostess are again cited as vital to her husband’s career progression, especially as Roderick became less open-minded and more priggish in later life. But it is key to remember that this wasn’t the only way Charlotte helped advance Roderick’s career: she continued to accompany him on fieldwork and her fieldwork sketches appeared in publications like “The Silurian System”. Today she’d be considered a rightful a co-author for sure.
Like Mary Buckland, Charlotte Murchison’s achievements and character have to be read, for the most part, from between the lines of the records and histories associated with her more famous husband. But it is without doubt that her contributions to #trowelblazing were many.
Charlotte Murchison died on 9 February 1869 at her home in Belgrave Square, London.
**Can you help us identify the original source of the Charlotte Murchison illustration on the RHS of our post? We’ve checked with the British Geological Survey (where we found the image), the Geological Society and the Science Museum but none of them hold, nor know who does hold, the original. The Geological Society said they obtained it from an uncredited image in Faul & Faul (1983) It Began With a Stone, but we can’t find the illustration in that book (though the rather nice drawing of the Murchsion-Lyell trip comes from there). Our trail goes cold here… We believe it’s out of copyright, and it has a certain William Buckland-esque quality about it. We would love to know more! << UPDATE! Thanks to Mhairi Davies & Bob MacIntosh on Facebook and Patrick & Morgan (@poikiloblastic) on twitter for identifying the image as The Light of Science by Henry de la Beche**
1. from an unpublished note on Mary Somerville’s autobiography, quoted in Kölbl-Ebert (1997) pp. 39-40.
Kölbl-Ebert, Martina (1997). “Charlotte Murchison (Née Hugonin) 1788-1869”. Earth Sciences History (History of Earth Sciences Society) 16 (1): 39–43
Written by Fernanda Castano (@ferwen)
Edited and additional content by Tori
Images: Illustration via the British Geological Survey.
With thanks to the Geological Society for the image of Charlotte Murchison’s notebook (the background image on ‘articles’ page)