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Home » Scotland’s Woman Of The Devonian – The Bristol Dinosaur Undertaking Weblog

Scotland’s Woman Of The Devonian – The Bristol Dinosaur Undertaking Weblog

Visitor Writer: James Ormiston
Palaeontology MSci Graduate / Palaeoartist

You very probably know the rhyme “She sells sea shells on the ocean shore”. You might also have heard that it was impressed by the well-known Dorset fossil hunter Mary Anning. You could, or might not, know that it’s probably unlikely that Anning was the actual inspiration for the rhyme (the rhyme is way older than many individuals realise). It makes for a pleasant story although!

However how about this various… “She finds fish fins from the far firth”? It’s not a real folklore tongue tornado – as a result of I simply made it up – however the lady it describes could be very a lot actual. Like Anning she represented a uncommon breed: the Victorian “Woman Geologist”. Ladies have been, generally, not unusual in 19th Century geology. The wives of males like William Buckland have been additionally trusty analysis assistants, but it surely was uncommon to discover a lady dictating her personal manner within the perceived gentlemanly discipline of earth science.

Ladies have been thought to lack the rationality and resilience to deal with scientific debate and fieldwork. The male angle was that delicate flowers are simply crushed by heavy rocks and heavier concepts. This was a division that even social class didn’t counteract, as was the case with Woman Eliza Maria Gordon-Cumming. Her lengthy identify might give a clue that her background was markedly totally different to Mary Anning’s.

Whereas Mary was born into modest environment, the daughter of a cupboard maker, Woman Eliza was the daughter of a politician and a celebrated novelist. Mary lived in a small wave-battered home on a bridge in Lyme Regis, whereas Woman Eliza occupied the big, centuries-old Altyre Property in Morayshire, Scotland. Mary’s journey into prehistory was initially pushed by monetary necessity to complement her household’s poor earnings from an early age. Woman Eliza picked it up nearly as a pastime in her 40s after having 12 kids, and sometimes had different individuals dig fossils up for her.

Portraits by Raeburn (left) and Saunders (proper)

A part of the explanation behind Woman Eliza’s relative obscurity is the tragic brevity of her actions. Regardless of amassing probably a whole bunch of fossils, lots of which at the moment are housed in museums in Scotland, England and Switzerland, she died in 1842 solely 3 years after her introduction.

Woman Eliza was already a lady of science, as she was an completed horticulturalist revered for her flower crosses. However the discovery of exceptionally well-preserved fossil fish at a close-by limestone quarry steered her in the direction of extra historic life kinds. Her curiosity in fossils was additional influenced by the arrival of some well-known geologists of the time who have been investigating Scotland’s Previous Pink Sandstone formations. Woman Eliza would be a part of them on their journeys across the Moray Firth, as reminisced by her travel-writer daughter Constance…

“Amongst my vivid recollections of about 1840 have been sure evenings when my mom returned from distant expeditions escorted by a number of gents, whom I now know to have been Sir Roderick Murchison, Hugh Miller, Agassiz, and different eminent geologists, who at the moment have been deeply within the newly found fossil fish within the Previous Pink Sandstone in Ross-shire, on the opposite aspect of the Moray Firth. Comparable fossils had simply been discovered within the Lethen-bar Lime Quarries, on the opposite aspect of the Findhorn. These have been a supply of eager curiosity to my mom, and it was to seek for extra that the geologists have been invited to Altyre.”

Woman Eliza was in a position to make use of her private wealth and connections to nice impact. She paid staff to deliver her fossils discovered on the Lethen Bar quarry (which now not exists, however its location has been deduced from historic information by Andrews, 1983), paying extra for prime quality specimens. She would then apply her eager creative skills to create detailed drawings and work of among the finest finds with the assistance of one other daughter, Anne. Previous visits by the artist Sir Edwin Landseer (Britain’s most financially profitable Victorian artist, creator of the Trafalgar Sq. lions) had initially impressed her to take up portray, and illustrations of the fossils in her assortment drew the eye of many notable researchers. Constance once more recollects…

“Night after night there was nice pleasure in rigorously lifting from a dogcart the spoils of the day, specifically gray nodules which, when gently tapped with a hammer, cut up in two, revealing the 2 excellent sides of unusual fossil fishes, with the very color of the scales nonetheless vivid. Daily my elder sisters patiently made minutely correct water-colour research of those, and one of the best specimens have been despatched to the British Museum, the place they nonetheless stay, and the place sure fishes hitherto unknown, have been referred to as after my mom.”

Illustration by Woman Eliza of certainly one of her specimens of Cheirolepis (left, from Agassiz, 1844-45), and the specimen itself (proper, from Nationwide Museums of Scotland)

Amongst her newfound educational acquaintances was Louis Agassiz of Switzerland, an professional within the discipline of palaeoichthyology who was delighted to search out that almost all of her assortment comprised Devonian fossil fish (he’s additionally a controversial determine attributable to his troubling views on race, one thing that reached into the very best echelons of science on the time, such because the “Father of Palaeontology” Georges Cuvier, of whom Agassiz was a pupil). He trawled via the mountain of piscine stays and recognized quite a few new species. Within the publication of his influential work on Devonian fish, “Monographie des poissons fossiles du vieux grés rouge: ou système Dévonien (Previous Pink Sandstone) des Iles Britanniques et de Russie”, he constantly thanks Woman Eliza for her beneficiant contributions (translated from French)…

“Among the many current contributions which have most elevated our information on the fossil fish of the Devonian system, I have to put within the first line what Woman Gordon Cumming did as a way to illustrate this historic fauna. Not content material with amassing and distributing to geologists, with unequalled liberality, the quite a few copies of those treasured particles which she had collected in a quarry exploited for this goal, she studied them rigorously, set aside essentially the most excellent copies, and painted them with a precision of element and an inventive expertise that only a few naturalists have been in a position to obtain. So her drawings and people of her daughter, who continually assisted her in these research, will kind one of many predominant ornaments of my Monograph. By delivering this assortment to the general public, it’s painful for me to suppose that this noble Woman will now not have the ability to gather the tribute herself so justly deserving of the popularity of geologists. Might this reminiscence, sown on her grave, remind her worthy follower that the eagerness she put in helping her mom contributed to elevating an enduring monument within the scientific world!”

So enamoured was Agassiz with the Altyre Assortment and its accompanying illustrations that he named certainly one of his newly discovered species after Woman Eliza; Cheirolepis cummingae. Agassiz had equally named new species after Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. However maybe it was all the way down to destiny that, together with a lot of her potential legacy, this explicit species was additionally misplaced to historical past when it was invalidated and merged with C. trialli in 2015.

There have been many different collectors and illustrators engaged on the fossils of Scotland on the time, so Woman Eliza and her daughter weren’t alone of their efforts. However it might nicely have been a mix of the sheer quantity of specimens, their diligent visible recording and the increase of the household’s social class that led to Agassiz, Murchison and others guaranteeing that the Altyre Assortment acquired the reward that it did. This was a time of nice pleasure within the palaeontological neighborhood because the Previous Pink Sandstone was being intensely surveyed, and lots of of Woman Eliza’s fossils have been crucial on this “Devonian Enlightenment”.

However nonetheless, regardless of her entrepreneurial enthusiasm and friendship with the very best authorities of the day, Woman Eliza was nonetheless Woman Eliza. The glass ceiling for girls within the scientific office was severely stunting. That she was credited in any respect is kind of a major prevalence, contemplating that even the now-world well-known Mary Anning was seldom credited for her finds. Ladies have been, as talked about, welcomed as assistants contributing observations, knowledge, illustrations and the like. However they weren’t anticipated to provide you with their very own concepts and interpretations. It wasn’t seen as “correct” to have the ability to suppose for themselves.

That is implied by the end result of Woman Eliza’s transition from specimen illustrations to scientific reconstructions. There have been many species in her assortment solely recognized from partial stays, and so by means of easy ideas of symmetry she began having a go at reconstructing what was lacking. She was, in her remaining days earlier than succumbing to delivery issues, intent on presenting her concepts to the scientific neighborhood by reconstructing the fishes Pterichthys and Cocosteus. She despatched out her interpretations to Murchison, hoping to have them revealed alongside his well-known work on the Silurian. However shortly after her demise, her daughter Anne additionally wrote to Murchison, this time apologising for Woman Eliza’s “fanciful” reconstructions and her combining of a number of fragmentary specimens right into a hypothetical full one. Anne requested that the reconstructions be withdrawn.

Burek & Higgs (2007) motive that this act of backtracking demonstrates the double requirements of the time. Each William Buckland and Richard Owen had themselves been very a lot “fanciful” of their incorrect reconstruction of the dinosaur Iguanodon having a nostril spike, which ought to have been on its thumb. Even Hugh Miller, one other of Woman Eliza’s contacts, had merged specimens of fish from the Previous Pink Sandstone itself. Why did Anne see it essential to formally apologise for one thing different scientists had been responsible of however not been persecuted for? The truth that Murchison’s private journals have been riddled with sexist remarks about girls in science is unlikely to be a coincidence…

What else might she have completed have been she not misplaced so quickly after embarking on her prehistoric journey? We’ll sadly by no means know. From the yr of her passing there’s a path of breadcrumbs in varied publications, together with the Proceedings of The Geological Society of London and The Literary Gazette, briefly reminding the world of her existence and thanking her in a few traces and footnotes. Had she continued her work, and maintained the inquisitive willpower to deliver her finds to life (aided by her excessive societal standing), Woman Eliza may nicely have grow to be one of many first skilled feminine palaeontologists.  As put by the traditional Chinese language thinker Lao Tzu: “The flame that burns twice as vivid burns half as lengthy.”


Aggasiz, L., “Monographie des poissons fossiles du vieux grés rouge: ou système Dévonien (Previous Pink Sandstone) des Iles Britanniques et de Russie” (1844-45)

Andrews, S. M. “Altyre & Lethen Bar, two Center Previous Pink Sandstone fish localities?” (1983)

Burek, C.V. & Higgs, B., “The Position of Ladies within the Historical past and Improvement of Geology” (2007)

Gordon-Cumming, C. F., “Recollections” (1904)

“Proceedings of The Geological Society of London. November 1838 to June 1842. Vol. III” (1842)

“The Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Letters, Arts, Sciences, &c. For the yr 1842.” (1842)

Winick, S., “She Sells Sea Shells and Mary Anning: Metafolklore with a Twist” (2017)

Edited by Rhys Charles

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