Marie Carmichael Stopes knew a thing or two about smut. In later life she was unfairly accused of writing it- but before that, she studied the ancient, sooty kind: coal.

Marie Stopes (1880-1958) was an extraordinary early trowelblazer. Famous worldwide today for herpioneering work in birth control and women’s rights, it is less well known that she was one of the leading palaeobotanists (ancient plant experts) of her age.

She grew up with parents who undoubtedly influenced both spheres of her life: her mother was an early feminist historian and Shakespearean scholar, while her father created the largest private collection of fossils and ancient stone tools in Britain.

At a time when women were barely being admitted to universities, she won a scholarship for her first degree in botany at UCL, became the youngest person in Britain to gain a DSc, then completed a PhD in palaeobotany in one year at the University of Munich. She was a Fellow and lecturer at UCL and became the first female academic at Manchester University in 1904.

Her palaeobotanical work was ‘her first love’.  She made major research contributions on the the nature and composition of coal, including ‘coal balls‘ (concretions in Carboniferous coal seams) and at Manchester wrote a seminal textbook, Ancient Plants. In 1907 she spent over a year in Japan researching Mesozoic floras and in 1910 was invited to settle a long-term dispute on the age of a Canadian fossil locality. During the First World War she worked on coal and coined petrological terms that are still in use today.

She asked Sir Robert Scott to search for plant fossils in Antarctica; despite the tragic fate of the expedition, her requested samples were later discovered on a sledge and they proved to be one of the most important scientific findings the expedition made.

By 1923, the date of her last scientific publications, Marie Stopes had gained both acclamation from ordinary women and opprobium from religious and medical establishments thanks to her book on women’s rights and health, inspired by an unsuccessful first marriage. She supported contraception and equality within marriage, and established family planning clinics (providing women with her self-designed cervical cap), the first of which opened in London in 1921.

While her work in promoting reproductive health is what she is now remembered for (plus some unsavoury socio-political views common to her time e.g. support for eugenics), her significant contributions to palaeobotany and role as an early trowelblazer should be better known.

We received two great Marie Stopes submissions *on the same day*, by Lil Stevens and Susie Lydon (@susieoftraken): we hope they don’t mind our editorial amalgamation!

Edited by Becky (@LeMoustier)


Marie Stopes: passionate about palaeobotany. A 2008 article for Geology Today by Howard Falcon-Lang.

Chaloner, W.G. 2005. The Palaeobotanical Work of Marie Stopes In: Bowden, A.J.,Burek, C.V. & Wilding, R. (eds) The History of Palaeobotany. Geological Society London Special Publications 241, 127-135.

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