Here for the final week of our crowdfund we have our last two women of #RaisingHorizons, joined by their fascination with the long-gone plant life of our planet.

Dr Marie Carmichael Stopes and Professor Jane Francis

Marie Carmichael Stopes in the laboratory, around 1904. Image from Wikipedia; source Marie Stopes International; used in accordance with upload to further knowledge of Dr Stopes.

Marie Carmichael Stopes in the laboratory, around 1904. Image from Wikipedia; source Marie Stopes International; used in accordance with upload to further knowledge of Dr Stopes.

Marie Carmichael Stopes was a pioneer of many things: education, palaeobotany, science communication, fieldwork and later in life, women’s health and reproductive rights. We’ve written about her before, but her story is no less impressive second time round, and frankly the more you investigate, the more amazing it is.

Born in Scotland to intellectual parents, Marie’s studies began at University College, London where she did a joint degree in geology and botany with a scholarship, in only two years and still got a first. She went on to become the youngest person in Britain to gain a DSc from the same institution in 1903, then completed a PhD in palaeobotany in one year at the University of Munich and following this became the first female academic at Manchester University as a lecturer between 1904-10. Phew, that’s a lot of firsts…

By this time she had specialized in researching Carboniferous plants, and in particular the nature and formation of coal. It is not surprising at all that this woman who was used to smashing glass ceilings requested to join Robert Scott’s last expedition to the Antarctic so she might pursue geological work. She was refused, but Scott’s team did collect specimens (he visited her at Manchester for a tutorial in fossil plants), and the material was recovered from his ill-fated expedition.

During her time at Manchester, Marie went on an 18 month long field trip to Japan, financed by the Royal Society, in pursuit of evidence for the earliest origin of flowers. Her remarkable experience can be read in her account of the trip “A Journal From Japan”, published in 1910. In the same year she also published “Ancient Plants“, often referred to as a textbook, but in fact very clearly aimed at general readers too; in the introduction she dedicates it “especially to all those who take an interest in plant evolution because it forms a thread in the web of life whose design they wish to trace.” Marie had already in 1906 published a book about studying plants for young people, and this belief in bringing information to those who might not otherwise be able to access it would continue later in her life.

1910 was also a pivotal year for Marie because while she was in Canada, having been brought in specifically by the Geological Society there to sort out disputes about the ages of important deposits, she met and got engaged to her first husband. While her scientific career continued to gain strength over the next few years (and she kept her name), her increasingly unhappy personal life began to edge forwards as a driving force for action too. In 1913, as she was starting divorce proceedings, she wrote what was to become the book which would kick start her life’s work in relationships and women’s sexual health. She continued her scientific work during the first world war (producing landmark research on coal, still used today to optimize power stations), and it was only in 1920 that she resigned her position as a lecturer at University College London, to pursue the establishment of Britain’s first birth control clinics, with her second husband. Her palaeontological publications continued however until 1935.

The rest of Marie Stopes’ life is just as remarkable as her early years as a palaeobiologist. There’s not the space here to go into the enormous impact she had on society through her work in promoting women’s health and sexual reproductive autonomy, but her forthrightness and commitment is a reflection of how she pursued her earlier trowelblazing career, which she still deserves to be better known for.

Professor Jane Francis.

Professor Jane Francis.

In probably one of our closest links between the Raising Horizons women, our contemporary trowelblazer Professor Jane Francis has actually worked on the same deposits as Marie Stopes. Her career perhaps offers an idea of the success Marie might have found if she had remained in palaeontology; we know she would certainly have gone to Antarctica had she been able to.

Jane’s degrees in geology were at the University of Southampton, and she later moved as a postdoctoral researcher, to Bedford College, the first higher education institution for women in Britain, with links to many trowelblazers and other Raising Horizons women.  She then had a position at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and at the University of Adelaide, before working at University of Leeds for over twenty years where she became Professor of Palaeoclimatology and Dean of the Faculty of Environment. In 2013 she was appointed Director at the BAS, the first woman to hold this position, and has also been the first woman to chair the Operations Working Group of Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings, which is an international forum focusing on the legal and logistical practicalities of working in Antarctica.

Jane’s research focuses on examining the environment and climate of the past through studying plant fossils. Her work in particular looks at how the the polar regions of the Earth have had hugely different conditions in ancient times when carbon dioxide levels were higher. Some of her fascinating projects include examining the traces of insect damage on plant fossils as a way to examine the evolution of ancient polar forests. In total, combining both hemispheres, she has been to these northern and southern extremes of the globe more than 15 times (Ellesmere Island, Axel Heiberg Island and Svalbard in the Arctic and the Transantarctic Mountains and the Antarctic Peninsula). Jane’s research is important not only for understanding the past condition of the Earth, but also significant as it points to how climate change may affect us in the next centuries.

Jane has received many awards, including early in her career the Palaeontological Association’s President’s Award. Since then she has won the US Navy Antarctic Medal, the Antarctic Service Medal from the NSF, the Coke Medal from the Geological Society of London, been named “Explorer Scientist” by The Science Council and awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University Of Plymouth. In 2002 Jane was awarded The Polar Medal, only the fourth woman our of over 4000 recipients, recognising her contribution to British polar science.


Written by Becky.

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