Mary Porter was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk on 26th July 1886. She was the daughter of Times journalist and international correspondent Robert and his wife Alice Porter (née Hobbins). Robert believed that education was superfluous for women; hence, Mary was schooled in reading and writing at home but did not receive any formal education. Nevertheless, like many a Trowelblazer, Mary – or ‘Polly’ as she was known to most people – persevered with her studies and defied the odds to become a well-known and influential crystallographer. Her interest in this subject was fueled by an interest in building stones and marbles that she developed at an early age.
Her father was sent to Rome when Mary was in her teens. There on her explorations of the excavations she met the archaeologists Conte Gnoli and Giacomo Boni and through them developed an interest in the decorative stones that were a major trade commodity during the Roman Imperial period. She became fascinated by these marbles and their use in archaeological contexts, but she was also interested in the recycling of decorative stones from ancient sites into modern churches, and the collectors of marble samples such as Faustino Corsi. She was inspired to begin her own collection of marble fragments, scavenged from the excavations.
Mary was quick to realise that the knowledge of the provenance of stones in the Roman world at the time was cursory and the main sources of knowledge concerning their place of origin were the Roman writers Vitruvius, Pliny the Elder and Pausanias. She remarked that the local site guides ‘are not to be trusted as to the names of marbles, which are invented by the stone-cutters, and are usually merely descriptive of colour or marking, or of some other peculiarity, and which for the most part bear no reference to the true geological character of the stone or the locality whence it comes.’ Sadly, despite Mary’s best efforts, much of this remains true to this day. However, Mary researched and recorded the textures of the stones she encountered and taught herself the rudiments of geology. At this time she was only 15. Her brothers had implored their father to allow Mary a proper education as a scientist, but to no avail. However, the life of a foreign correspondent is a fickle one, and the Porters returned to England and, conveniently for Mary, settled in Oxford.
Here, Mary became an habitué of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) where the Corsi Collection is housed. Here she met Professor of Mineralogy Henry Miers. Miers had previously studied classics and the Corsi Collection very much piqued his interest, as its interpretation and cataloguing required the combination of a knowledge both of the classics and mineralogy and petrology. Miers set Mary, still a teenager, the task of translating Corsi’s records from Italian to English. Here, with full access to an excellent reference collection, she developed a great expertise in the identification of decorative stones, and applied her knowledge in identifying building materials used in the local churches and colleges. She also corresponded with William Brindley, co-director of the (legendary) stone contractors Farmer & Brindley who specialised in the procurement of ancient marbles. Through Farmer & Brindley, she was also able to obtain new stone samples which she described, catalogued and accessioned to the Corsi Collection. At the age of only 21, Mary published her book; ‘What Rome was Built With: A Description of the Stones Employed in Ancient Times for its Building and Decoration. (1907)’ This volume still stands today as a useful reference for any geologist (or indeed archaeologist) with an interest on the use of stone in Roman architecture. It is almost certain that Brindley also learned much from Mary on the use and importance of stone in the Roman World.
Importantly, Miers saw her potential and tutored her in mineralogy and crystallography. Their academic liaison came to and end when Miers left Oxford to join the University of London and Mary’s family moved to the USA. In Washington, D.C., Mary worked at the Smithsonian Museum, cataloguing their collection of decorative stone samples. Two years later, her father was posted to Germany, where at last, Mary (now in her mid- twenties) was able to study at university and attended graduate study programmes in mineralogy at the University of Munich for just one term. During the summer of 1913, Mary returned to the USA to work with pioneering geologist Florence Bascom at Bryn Mawr. Under Bascom’s influence, Mary’s skills as a crystallographer flourished. Bascom put her in contact with Victor Goldschmidt at the University of Heidelberg and Mary went on to study at that institution for the next two years. She returned to the UK to take up a scholarship at Somerville College, Oxford and finally in 1932 was awarded a Doctor of Science degree. She went on to be an influential crystallographer, working with Dorothy Hodgkin and co-editing with R. C. Spiller the Barker Index of Crystals.
Mary worked at the intersection of the fields of classical crystallography and the then new science of X-Ray crystallography. She embraced the new analytical technologies and published a number of research articles. She was a member of Council for the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain from 1918-1921 and then again from 1929-1932.
Back at Oxford, Mary made time to further work with the Corsi Collection, particularly in arranging a new display system for the stones. Mary’s legacy is now one of the most important reference collections of Roman and other decorative stones available to researchers. Her work and the collection have been extremely influential in the study of the Roman Marble trade. It was used by Conte Gnoli’s grandson, Raniero Gnoli who wrote the definitive text Marmora Romana (1971) and by former director of the British School at Rome John Ward-Perkins, both authoritative and important researchers in this field.
Although Mary should be rightly remembered for her contributions to crystallography, she should also be acknowledged for being one of the first people to seriously study the use of stone in cultural heritage and for making this subject a valid field of cross-disciplinary research. She died on 25th November 1980 in Oxford at the age of 94.
Post by Ruth Siddall, who says, “The Corsi Collection still resides at the OUMNH where it is curated by Monica Price. I am also very grateful to Mr Brian Woodward, a distant relative of Polly Porter’s, through whom I discovered her photographs and some more details of her life.”
Image provided by Brian Woodward and used with permission.
Haines, C. H., 2001, International Women in Science: A Biographical Dictionary to 1950., ABC Clio Inc. Santa Barbara, California, p. 253.
Ogilvie, M., Harvey, J. & Rossiter, M. (Eds), 2003, The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century., Routledge, Oxford., 1043-1044.
Rayner-Canham, M. F. & Rayner-Canham, G., 2008, Chemistry Was Their Life: Pioneering British Women Chemists, 1880-1949., Imperial College Press, London., 336-337.
Corsi Collection: http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/corsi/
Census of England and Wales, 1911.