Jane Donald Longstaff (1855-1935) was a Victorian palaeontologist, biologist and malacologist that everyone should know about. Self-trained, a passion for snails in her youth transformed into a lifelong expertise in fossil molluscs. Her pioneering work on the taxonomy of ancient gastropods – slugs and snails – earned her much recognition in her lifetime, and remains highly relevant to this day.
Born Mary Jane Donald (but usually referred to by her middle name) on the 27th August, 1855, in Carlisle, England, Donald was the eldest of four children. She was educated at a private school in London, then at Carlisle School of Art, but had always nurtured a passion for the natural world. In particular she loved snails, both terrestrial and aquatic. She even bred them in her home.
She wrote her first scientific paper, Notes on the Land and Freshwater Shells of Cumberland, at the age of 26, and had it read at a meeting of the local Cumberland Association for the Advancement of Literature and Science in 1882. J.C. Goodchild, the editor of the society’s transactions and a well-known geologist, subsequently contacted her to suggest she might channel her expertise in today’s snails towards the poorly known fossils of this group. This she did, with extraordinary finesse.
Donald joined the Geologists Association the following year, 1883, and remained a lifelong member. She received the Murchison Award from the Geological Society in 1889, awarded for achievements by researchers under the age of 40. Although unable to attend, Donald was even invited to the 1893 World’s Fair Congress in Chicago as a representative for female geologists. She was elected a fellow of the Linnaean Society at the age of 51, and was one of the first women admitted to the Geological Society of London in 1919.
Unlike other late-Victorian/early 20th century women in science, she managed to publish over 20 scientific papers, sometimes in collaboration, but often as sole author. This was especially impressive given her gender, which made access to scientific literature and museum collections quite challenging. Yet, she travelled across the UK and Europe to examine specimens and used her art training to generate detailed scientific illustrations. The taxonomy of gastropods was still poorly understood when she began to examine them in the 1800s. Her attention to detail and biological understanding of mollusc anatomy made her well suited to taxonomic description, and she specialised in Carboniferous gastropods in particular. She worked on the gastropod fossils found by fellow #trowelblazer and good friend, Elizabeth Anderson Grey. Much of Donald’s work was novel, retaining its relevance and accuracy as a resource for current scientific research.
At age 51, Donald married a fellow scientist, George Blundell Longstaff. With his passion for lepidoptery (butterflies) and hers for molluscs, the pair embarked on years of travel to Africa, Australia, the West Indies and South America, collecting as they went. She published more papers and created detailed illustrations both for her own extant and fossil specimens, and for her husband’s collections. She is well known for her detailed studies on the snails in Sudan, Africa.
Her marriage lasted only 15 years before George passed away after a long illness. This didn’t stop Longstaff from continuing her research and collections, and she wrote papers up until her death on the 19th January, 1935. Much of her extensive collections were donated by her nephew to the Natural History Museum in London, but her specimens are also in the Tullie Museum and Art Gallery in her hometown, the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, the National Museum in Edinburgh, and they also form part of the collections of the British Geological Survey.
Article courtesy of Elsa Panciroli.
Image from “A Revision of the British Carboniferous Loxonematidae, with Descriptions of New Forms” by Jane Longstaff, 1933.
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Donald, D. 2014 Cumbrian ancestors unwrapped. P3 Publications: Cumbria, UK.
Haines, C. M. C. 2001 International Women in Science: A Biographical Dictionary to 1950. ABC-CLIO Inc: Santa Barbara, US.
Ogilvie, M. B. & Harvey, J. D. 2000 The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century Volume 2 L-Z (Volume 2). Routledge: New York, US.