You never hear of the other Lyell. Sir Charles, you know quite well: he set the infant science of geology firmly on its feet and inspired Charles Darwin. But there’s another Lyell who was a geologist, and without her, Charles Lyell would have found his work far more difficult, if not impossible. When he married Mary Horner, he pledged himself to a lifelong scientific partner.
Why don’t we know her?
Charles provided some insight when speaking of mathematician Mary Somerville. If she’d married a fellow mathematician, he mused, “we should never have heard of her work. She would have merged it in her husband’s, and passed it off as his.” It’s possible he had his own Mary in mind when he said that.
Mary Horner Lyell (1808-1873) was surrounded by geology from the beginning of her life. Her father, Professor Leonard Horner, taught geology in England and Germany, and became a member of the Geological Society. He hired tutors for his sons and daughters, ensuring all of his children had an excellent education. That education allowed Mary to become a conchologist and her younger sister, Katherine, to pursue a career as a botanist. Both of them were well-respected and accomplished in their fields. Both of them also married a Lyell: Katherine married Charles’s younger brother, Henry.
Marrying Charles didn’t confine Mary to the domestic life of a housewife: far from it. She traveled the world with her husband as his partner in geology. She did the packing: their clothes, his geologic equipment and specimens. While Charles investigated, she sketched and painted the outcrops, geologic structures, and cross-sections they discovered. When circumstances prevented her from going out into the field with him, Charles didn’t neglect her. He created detailed journals of his investigations for her, and wrote affectionate letters beginning, “My dearest Mary…”
Mary wasn’t just an asset in the field. She helped him with research and cataloged the rocks, minerals and fossils they collected. She acted as his scribe and interpreter: her fluency in French and German allowed her to translate letters from European geologists, and she learned Spanish and Swedish as well. Charles’s eyesight became less up to the task of correspondence, she ensured he stayed current and connected.
When Darwin and Mr. Lyell discussed evolution, Mary was an active part of the conversation. When Darwin needed barnacles, she supplied them (“I am much obliged for the Barnacles,” he wrote to her, and then launched into a discussion of the glacial geology of the Scottish glens. In a letter a few years previously, he had described Mary as “a monument of patience” for putting up with his and Sir Charles’s “unsophisticated geology” talk – it seems that by the time she began slipping him barnacles, he’d figured out she actually enjoyed this geology stuff).
Mary also carried on a lively correspondence with another geological wife: she and Elizabeth Agassiz discussed the glacial geology of South America in their letters back and forth.
Her husband was fully supportive of women who wanted to participate in science. He insisted that women be allowed to attend his lectures. Mary didn’t limit herself to just his talks: she attended special lectures at the London Geological Society with keen interest.
Though her contemporaries and later historians too often overlooked her, it was clear she understood geology thoroughly. And she was certainly a scientist in her own right. In 1854, she collected and studied land snails in the Canary Islands, her own version of Darwin’s finches. In another age, her work may not have been so merged with and overshadowed by her husband’s. She was a geologist to the core. If Charles Lyell was one of geology’s fathers, Mary Horner Lyell was certainly one of its mothers, an extraordinary and dedicated woman we need to remember.
Previous posts in this series:
Ashcraft, Donna Musialowski (1998): Women’s Work: A Survey of Scholarship by and About Women. Binghampton, NY: The Hawthorn Press.
Hardman, Phillippa: “Talking to Naturalists.” Darwin and Gender: the Blog. Last accessed 4-25-2013.
Hestmark, Geir (2011): “The meaning of ’metamorphic’ – Charles & Mary Lyell in Norway, 1837.” Norwegian Journal of Geology, Vol 91, pp. 247-275.
Ogilive, Marilyn B. (1986): Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century. Boston, Massachussets: MIT.
Somerville, Mary (2001): Queen of Science. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd.
(Originally published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.)