Mary Elizabeth Horner was a British geologist and naturalist who later specialized in conchology – the study of mollusc shells. In fact, she collected,studied, and categorized land snails in the Canary Islands as part of her research, though her true passion from an early age was geology. Born in London in 1808, this childhood passion was likely due in part to the fact that her father was a geologist and educational reformer who was President of the Geological Society of London in 1846 and again in 1860. He ensured that she and her siblings received a well-rounded education, and her younger sister, Katherine, also became a scientist in the field of botany.

You may not have heard her name before, and this is perhaps because at the age of 23 (in 1832) she married Charles Lyell, a former student of her father’s, in Bonn, Germany. Mary and Charles travelled to Europe and North America, but like other women of the 19th century (think of Mary Buckland and Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz), Mary’s scientific work was subsumed within that of her husband. In addition to her own research, she helped catalogue the rocks, minerals and fossils they collected, and acted as his scribe and translator-she was a fluent reader in French, German, Spanish and Swedish!

Mary had a great interest and understanding of geology and corresponded with Elizabeth Agassiz (an American natural historian and the wife of Louis Agassiz) about the glacial geology of South America as well as Charles Darwin, whom she sent barnacles along with thoughts regarding Scottish glacial geology.

Mary died in London in 1873. Charles followed two years later, while he was revising the twelfth edition of his famous “Principles of Geology”- to which she was, no doubt, an indispensable contributor.

Written by @ferwen​

Edited & posted by Suzie @suzie_birch

Further Reading:

Somerville, Mary (2001): Queen of Science. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd.

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