A cartoon of a woman in Victorian attire carrying a parasol in front of a volcanic landscape.
Artwork by Emma Metcalfe based on a photograph by Tempest Anderson.

Geology is the study of Earth, from its physical structure to the evolution of life. However, despite being a topic of such diversity, this field has traditionally remained dominated by men. Women were not able to graduate, become members of geological societies, or even attend geological lectures up until the early 20th century. While there have been positive advances made to the position and view of women in geology, there is still room for improvement. Only 44% of physical science students are women or non-binary, and less than 40% of spaces on geoscience courses in the UK are taken up by women.

To encourage more women into science, and particularly the geosciences, we need to celebrate their achievements in this field and show that it is not only possible to pursue this path, but to be successful along it. Here, we highlight some inspiring women in geology and reveal how they made their mark.

Mary Anning (1799–1847)

Mary Anning painted by an unknown artist prior to 1842.
Mary Anning painted by an unknown artist prior to 1842. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most famous female geologist of all time is Mary Anning, best known for her discoveries of fossils along the Jurassic Coast of southern England. However, few know that the infant Mary was struck by lightning and survived. Continuing in defiance of society, Mary collected fossils with her father during her childhood, unheard of for girls of the time. Fossil hunting soon became Mary’s living once her family were thrown into financial crisis after her father's sudden death in 1810.

Between the ages of ten and twelve, Mary and her brother Joseph Anning (1796–1849) went on to discover the remains of the ichthyosaur Temnodontosaurus platyodon. However, they were not given any credit despite the substantial advancement this made in the understanding of ichthyosaur anatomy. Then, in 1823, she discovered the remains of the plesiosaur Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, but again was disregarded by male scientists. In 1828, Mary found the remains of the pterosaur Dimorphodon macronyx, and was finally recognised by her friend William Buckland (1784–1856) in the scientific paper that followed.

These incredible finds and Anning’s Lyme Regis fossil shop fuelled other scientists’ curiosity concerning the woman behind the fossils, and many flocked to find out who she was. Yet, some male geologists still viewed her in a misogynistic, patronising light, with Gideon Mantell (1790–1852) commenting in 1832, ‘We found her in a little dirty shop, with hundreds of specimens piled around her in the greatest disorder.’ Others, like Ludwig Leichhardt (1813– c.1848), were more supportive, ‘Every morning and every stormy sea, she goes walking and clambering about on the slopes of the Lias to see whether fossils have been brought to light.’

In 1847, Mary succumbed to breast cancer. In the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, her friend and fellow geologist Henry De la Beche (1796–1855) wrote: ‘I cannot close this notice of our losses by death without adverting to that of one, who though not placed among even the easier classes of society, but who had to earn her daily bread by her labour,’ referring to Anning’s humble origins.

The Geological Society of London began admitting women to their meetings in 1904 and as members in 1919, over 50 years after Mary’s death. In 2022, a statue was built in Mary’s honour in her hometown of Lyme Regis, a popular fossil-hunting spot where ammonites decorate the shoreline.

Charlotte Murchison, née Hugonin (1788–1869)

Said to have been an amiable and accomplished woman, with an extensive scientific knowledge of rocks and fossils, Charlotte was a pioneering geologist born in Hampshire. In fact, it was primarily due to her that her husband, a soldier by the name of Roderick Impey Murchison (1792–1871), turned his efforts to geology, a field in which he later received acclaim for his establishment of the Silurian Period.

In 1816, the couple departed to Europe, where Charlotte helped her husband recognise the varied biodiversity of the mountains they traversed. Then, in the summer of 1817, Charlotte contracted malaria in Rome, an illness with which she suffered throughout the remainder of her life. The following year, the couple returned to the United Kingdom, where Charlotte devoted her mind to the minerals of County Durham while her husband took up foxhunting. Charlotte soon grew tired of her husband’s leisure, and after an extended period finally persuaded him to the pursuit of science, so in 1824 the couple moved to London, where Roderick could attend lectures on geology and chemistry.

In 1825, Roderick presented his first paper to the Geological Society, considered to be a joint effort with his wife; while in the same year, the couple explored the southern coast of England. Here, Charlotte produced striking sketches and collected fossils while Roderick consistently embarked on various detours. In Lyme Regis, Charlotte met and became friends with Mary Anning (1799–1847), with Mary even visiting the Murchisons’ London home in 1829.

In 1826, the Murchisons visited the northern United Kingdom, and travelled across France and Italy in 1828 along with Charles Lyell (1797–1875). On both trips, Charlotte diligently collected fossils and sketched the regional geology, with many of these fossils later being described by James de Carle Sowerby (1788–1871). One was even named in honour of Charlotte and her dedication to the field, the holotype of Ammonites Murchisonae.

By 1862, Charlotte’s health remained delicate, but this did not stop her aiding her husband in drafting his addresses for the Geological Society. Nevertheless, in 1869, Charlotte succumbed to her illness, and was buried in London in the same grave to which her husband soon followed.

Before Charlotte’s encouragement, it was said that Roderick ‘hardly knew one stone from another’ (Mary Somerville; 1780–1872), and this geological giant of a man could have only gained his commendation with the help of an unsung, revolutionary woman.

Ethel Shakespear, née Wood (1871–1945)

Ethel Shakespear, née Wood (1871–1945).
Ethel Shakespear. Image from the Lapworth Museum of Geology.

An outstanding geologist and flourishing social activist, Ethel was born 1871 near Bedford. She went on to attend Newnham College, University of Cambridge, where she fell in love with geology and fieldwork. Here, she met friends and collaborators with which she would stay in contact with for the rest of her life, Ethel Skeat (1865–1939), Margaret Crosfield (1859–1952), and Gertrude Elles (1872–1960). Ethel passed with First Class Honours, and later would become an associate of Newnham College (1905) and claim her doctorate of science from Birmingham (1906).

Following her time at Cambridge, Ethel went to Birmingham and served as research assistant to Professor Charles Lapworth. At the time, Lapworth was severely overburdened, and it was said that Ethel was one of the sole reasons he could cope with his workload. During her academic career, Ethel produced three exceptional pieces of geological research, namely A Monograph of British Graptolites alongside Gertrude Elles, a pivotal work published across 13 years in which her illustrations took centre stage; and detailed stratigraphic analyses on the Lower Ludlow Formation, which led to the Geological Society awarding her the Wollaston Fund.

Ethel worked with Lapworth until her marriage in 1906. Then, from 1915 onwards, her life took a different turn as concern for the welfare of disabled soldiers led her to strive for adequate pensions, treatment, and training for discharged armed forces personnel. She helped found the Association of War Pension Committees in London, was appointed a member of the Special Grants Committee of the Ministry of Pensions between 1917 and 1926, and served on the Birmingham and Sutton Coldfield War Pensions Committee. Ultimately, her services to the country earned her an M.B.E. in 1918 and a D.B.E. in 1920. This same year, Ethel was awarded the Murchison Medal by the Geological Society to recognise her valuable scientific work, but her social work continued to be her main responsibility, as she became a Justice of the Peace for Birmingham in 1922.

In 1929, Ethel and her husband moved to a farm in Worcestershire, where she pursued the agricultural lifestyle with the same energy she had for previous passions. However, this peace was short-lived, as the outbreak of the Second World War saw Ethel once again go to service. She took on the extra work mandated by the government despite losses of her farm staff, but this took its toll on her, and in 1945, Ethel became ill and subsequently passed away. It was said of her that she ‘served her generation in so many ways to the utmost of her powers’ and she is remembered as a symbol of ingenuity.

Gertrude Elles (1872–1960)

Gertrude in the field, 1913.
Gertrude in the field, 1913. Image provided by the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

Praised as ‘amazing’ and ‘slightly eccentric’, Gertrude Elles (1872–1960) was truly ahead of her time. Remembered as an inspirational lecturer with a range of knowledge and admiration of the outdoors, Gertrude was born in Wimbledon, the youngest of six. Each year, her family would visit Scotland, and it was during this time that Gertrude developed her lasting love of the Highlands. At school, Gertrude’s interest in earth sciences likely began when geology classes were introduced in 1887. She was said to have developed one of the best geological collections of her classmates and went on to receive the Harkness Scholarship for Geology at Newnham College, University of Cambridge.

She attended university from 1891, where she met her lifelong friends and collaborators Ethel Skeat (1865–1939), Margaret Crosfield (1859–1952), and Ethel Shakespear (1871–1945). Gertrude served as one of the first three female members of the undergraduate geology society the Sedgwick Club, where she was fundamental in ensuring more women were included despite the traditionally misogynistic attitude of the club meetings. In 1895, Gertrude passed with First Class Honours, but degrees were not granted to women no matter their achievements, so she travelled to Dublin to receive her scientific doctorate in 1905.

In 1901, Gertrude and Ethel Shakespear were able to work with Charles Lapworth at Mason College (now the University of Birmingham) to research Paleozoic fauna, which lead to the publication of A Monograph of British Graptolites, a seminal work in the field of palaeontology which is still widely cited today. Gertrude continued to produce important scientific contributions year-upon-year, including a review of the metamorphic history of the Highlands. She even went on to become the first female lecturer at Cambridge in 1926, but it wasn’t until 1949, after having refused a nominal degree, that Gertrude accepted her doctorate from Cambridge following legislation which allowed women to do so.

Gertrude was known to consistently want to help her colleagues however she could, which is celebrated with the Gertrude Elles Award, introduced in 2018 by the Palaeontological Association to promote public engagement in palaeontology and continue the legacy of this prominent woman.

Ida Slater (1881–1969)

Ida Slater.
Ida Slater. Image provided by the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

Women such as Ida Slater would continue to go beyond expectations. Ida was born one of four into a wealthy family in London, but her thirst for knowledge compelled her to study geology at Newnham College at the University of Cambridge. Here she served as honorary secretary of the Sedgwick Club, however, women were allowed to study but not graduate, so Ida travelled on her own to Trinity College Dublin to gain her First Class degree, a feat also uncommon as it was expected that women should not travel unaccompanied.

Ida’s early research was on the geomorphology of valleys, concluding that U-shaped valleys were not necessarily always the result of ice action; findings now known to be correct but which were disputed by established male geologists at the time. Her most well-known research related to conulariids, an extinct group of jellyfish, specifically the conulariids of Britain, prior to which had not been studied in depth. While researching these fossils, Ida left handwritten identifications which can still be seen today. She also became friends with Arthur Smith Woodward (1864–1944), who asked her to prepare a monograph for the Palaeontographical Society and later was her primary supporter in gaining the Daniel Pidgeon Fund of the Geological Society of London. Ida’s monograph was published in 1907, and her collection is now held at the Natural History Museum, where it persists as the most diverse collection of this fossil group in the world.

In the early 20th century, Ida also revised the geology of the Ludlow district along with Gertrude Elles (1872–1960) but was not allowed to read her own paper at the Geological Society of London because she was not a fellow. However, from 1904 onwards, Ida was able to join meetings when the society permitted women to attend.

In 1911, Ida worked with Gertrude Elles and Ethel Shakespear (1871–1945) on their graptolite monograph under Charles Lapworth (1842–1920), the Lapworth Museum’s namesake and first Professor of Geology at Mason College.

Known as a keen illustrator of fossils like the conulariids, Ida also drew outside of geology. Her artwork commemorating the Entente Cordiale of 1904 – an agreement leading to an improvement of Anglo-French relations – were displayed at the Franco-British exhibition in 1908. Ida married in 1912 and subsequently ceased work in geology, but despite her short time in the field, her impact is indisputable. The independence and resilience she showed in the face of rigid, sexist expectations is nothing short of inspirational.

Janet Watson (1923–1985)

Janet’s field sketchbook, 1946.
Janet’s field sketchbook, 1946. Image from the Geological Society.

Over 25 years after women were admitted as members to the Geological Society, Janet Watson began the geology career that would lead her to eminence in the field. The daughter of palaeontologist David Watson (1886–1973) and embryologist Katherine Parker (1891–unknown), Janet developed a keen interest in science from a young age. The only woman in the geology department at Imperial College between 1945 and 1947, her supervisor Herbert Read (1889–1970) sent her on a field trip to study migmatites on the west coast of Scotland. This trip resulted in Janet’s first paper was published in 1948, based on her conclusions that an abundance of the mineral sillimanite was not caused by regional metamorphism, but instead due to hydrothermal changes. The trip also sparked Janet’s lifelong passion for fieldwork.

After her undergraduate studies, she continued working predominantly as a field geologist. For her PhD, she mapped Precambrian rocks of Scotland with her future husband John Sutton (1919–1992). Their work on the Lewisian complex was at first met with scepticism from the wider geological community but earned them the prestigious Lyell Fund from the Geological Society of London in 1954. Later, the findings made using radiometric dating corroborated their theories.

Following this, she was a Research Assistant at Imperial College for twenty years, continuing her work on the Precambrian geology of Scotland. She was a staunch advocate of making primary observations through mapping in the field to build on her theories. In 1973, she was awarded the Lyell Medal and became Senior Lecturer at Imperial College.

One of Janet’s strengths throughout her career was her ability to eloquently and clearly communicate her scientific research through writing and speaking. This ability not only gave her the opportunity to be the top speaker at many student societies during her undergraduate studies but also gave her the skills to become the first female President of the Geological Society of London. Janet held this position from 1982 to 1984.

Leaving behind a rich legacy, Janet has been described as a ‘pioneering structural geologist’ and ‘a real inspiration for future female geologists’.

Final thoughts

The contributions of these women to geology have been varied, some advanced our understanding of life on Earth with groundbreaking fossil finds while others shared their research with the wider public through formative scientific works. One common theme is that despite adversity from all fronts, these women did not allow societal expectations to stand in the way of their passion for geology and their enthusiasm to continue learning about the subject.