Marjorie Sweeting: “The Basis for a World Model of Karst”

One of the best karst geologists in the world was technically a geographer. That’s the thing with physical geography: women were allowed to do it, and some of them made it just as geological as they liked. Dr. Marjorie Sweeting (1920-1994) certainly loved doing geology. Let’s call her what she was: geographer, geomorphologist, and distinguished Cambridge Fellow. The quality of her life’s work, plus my affection for alliteration, leads me to crown her the queen of karst.

Marjorie Sweeting. Detail of image in obituary by H.A. Viles.
Marjorie Sweeting. Detail of image in obituary by H.A. Viles.

I’ve fallen a bit in love with all of the women in geology I’ve researched and written about so far, but Marjorie was the first who got me copiously salivating. You see, I’m a bit of a karst addict. I especially love the karst landscapes of China. So finding out that this remarkable woman led the first set of British geomorphologists to China, and was the first western geologist to study those astounding landscapes, sent me into an agony of ecstasy. And I discovered a woman every bit as remarkable as the landforms she studied.

Marjorie’s dad, G.S. Sweeting, may have gotten her started on her love affair with the earth sciences – he was himself a geologist, a lecturer at Imperial College. She no doubt made him proud when she graduated from Newham College, Cambridge, in 1941 with top marks and a shiny geography degree. She would have pursued her studies and research if Hilter hadn’t gotten ambitious. During World War II, she ended up in Denbigh, North Wales, where she taught geography while the great powers did their best to change the political geography of the world.

After the war, she moved quickly to obtain her PhD. It was awarded her in 1948. She did her thesis on “The Landforms of the Carboniferous Limestone of the Ingleborough District, NW Yorkshire.” She zipped all over those wild and lonely moors on her bicycle, figuring them out, and returned there when a friend needed assistance recovering from an appendectomy. What better place for a convalescent than those landscapes? What better activity than potholing? Now, I’m not so sure I would have wanted to go potholing just after abdominal surgery – “potholing” being the British term for caving, and caves being a bit physically demanding – but it seems to have done the trick for her friend, so perhaps there’s something to that idea.

Image shows a limestone cliff looming over a valley with mountains in the distance.
The limestone band above Black Shiver, Ingleborough. Image courtesy Karl and Ali at Geograph. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Marjorie plunged into her work after earning her doctorate, becoming a research fellow at her Cambridge alma mater from 1948 until 1951. Research, in fact, was one of her passions – she never stopped, even when she moved on to Oxford in 1951 to help the college develop its physical geography program. As Fellow and Tutor (St. Hugh’s College, Oxford), Lecturer and Reader (Oxford), positions she held from 1954 until her retirement in 1987, she was a tireless advocate of scientific studies and research, even at a college that wasn’t yet so passionate about same, in an age when few female geographers could boast dual positions at both university and college. She mentored young students, including several women we’ll meet later on in this series – Margaret Marker and Gillian Groom among them. She and her research students ensured Oxford remained current on international trends in the geosciences. Her 30+ grad students found her a dedicated supporter to them in the field. She fed them, encouraged them, advised them, fostered their determination and independence. One gets the impression that geography couldn’t quite have happened at Oxford without her.

And she collaborated with her father. For some reason, that father-daughter team-up warms the cockles of my heart.

World traveler? Oh, yes. Marjorie lectured extensively abroad: Jamaica, Czechoslovakia, Australia, Canada, South Africa, the United States, and China all benefited from her knowledge. She studied karst landscapes around the world, quickly becoming one of the key scientists in that field. Marjorie was superb at networking, and made so many international contacts during her trips that she became that person everyone turns to when they need a scientific study organized. When Great Britain sent a team of geomorphologists to China for the first time, she was the perfect person to lead – and she gathered Chinese scientists into her far-flung network of karst experts. They worked together for many long years.

Guilin, China. This is one of the iconic karst landscapes, utterly extraordinary. Image credit Harvey Barrison on Flickr.
Guilin, China. This is one of the iconic karst landscapes, utterly extraordinary. Image credit Harvey Barrison on Flickr.

She published more than seventy papers and books, among them some of the first studies of Chinese karst landscapes ever published in the west. “Reading through her list of publications,” H.A. Viles said in an obituary welling with admiration, “is rather like doing an armchair tour of the best karst sites in the world.” If that doesn’t prick up your ears and tickle your curiosity, nothing will. Where can her papers take you? Here’s a short list:

New Zealand
South Africa

Good thing we’re only armchair traveling, then. That’s quite the world tour Marjorie took us on. Expert in worldwide karst landscapes? I should think so! And she was a hugely influential figure in karst geomorphology – she was one of the key people who made measurements of karst processes in the field and lab what they are today. Did you spend your morning “relating meteorological and mineral characteristics to karst landform evolution?” Thank Marjorie – she’s the one who made important advances in those measurements. Do you consider cave science to be rather critical when it comes to understanding karst? So did she. She loved her caves.

So she was one of those people who, while not world-famous, did an incredible amount of well-respected work. She wasn’t going to let being a woman in a man’s world stop her. She and a few of her fellow female geographers challenged the prevailing attitudes towards people with lady parts in the physical sciences, and prevailed. She earned the esteem of her colleagues, and certainly got formally recognized for her work. She won plenty of medals from the Royal Geographical Society, among them the Gill Memorial Medal (1955) and the Busk Medal (1980). She held plenty of important positions: as a member of the Council of the Royal Geographical Society, serving on the executive committee of the Field Studies Council, and in the mid-1970s, she became a chair of the British Geomorphological Research Group – the first woman to do so. At Oxford, she served on the general board, and was Acting Head of Department at one point. The Marjorie Sweeting Dissertation Prize is given in her honor to outstanding undergrad geomorphologists in the UK. Her accomplishments and legacy testify to her dedication and perseverance.

One of the most important of Marjorie’s characteristics was her “ability to listen and take on board new ideas, coupled with a clear grasp of her own scientific principles.” I think this was a huge part of what made her such an exceptional scientist. She championed people and basic research. “Large global schemes of landform development will not advance our knowledge; it is detailed studies set in the context of a wider field which will,” she wrote, and the detailed studies she performed are a major reason why we understand the weird and wonderful characteristics of karst as well as we do. We owe a lot to a woman whose work was instrumental in forming “the basis for a world model of karst.”

Cover of Marjorie Sweeting's excellent book on Chinese karst landscapes.
Cover of Marjorie Sweeting’s excellent book on Chinese karst landscapes.

Previous Pioneers:

Zonia Baber

Mary Lyell


Burek, Cynthia Veronica and Higgs, Bettie (2007): The Role of Women in the History of Geology. London: The Geological Society.

Kennedy, Barbara (1995): Obituaries: Marjorie Sweeting. The Independent.

Sweeting, Marjorie M. (1978): “The karst of Kweilin, southern China.” Geographical Journal.

Viles H.A. (1996): Obituary: Marjorie Sweeting 1920-1994. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Vol. 21, No. 2.


(Originally published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.)

Marjorie Sweeting: “The Basis for a World Model of Karst”

5 thoughts on “Marjorie Sweeting: “The Basis for a World Model of Karst”

  1. 2

    One question kept nagging at me while I was reading this, “what is karst?”… Sadly, almost everything I know of geology comes from what I learned in grade school and your blog.

    But – whether I know what karst is or not, she certainly was an impressive scientist!

  2. 3

    One question kept nagging at me while I was reading this, “what is karst?”

    felicis, I too did not know what karst is. But the wonder of the internet is that it is so simple to look something up. Just highlight the word or phrase you want to know more about (by double-clicking) and then right-click will give you an option to “Search Google for ‘karst'” and then you will find out that

    Karst is a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks including limestone, dolomite and gypsum. It is characterized by sinkholes, caves, and underground drainage systems.

  3. 4

    Funny enough, I too know of this thing called the internet. It would have been nice to have a paragraph telling us what it is and why it’s important to provide some context for this person’s life work.

    It doesn’t have to be terribly detailed – for example, were I to discuss Emmy Noether (mathematician/physicist), I could talk about Noether’s theorem and how it’s a blend of algebra and analysis – though that would probably confuse the issue for almost anyone without at least a minor (or a strong self-education) in mathematics. It would be better to either ignore the technical side entirely (a la ‘her theorems explained various conservation laws in physics’) or to give a thumbnail sketch of what ‘algebra’ and ‘analysis’ mean in this context.

  4. rq

    There’s karst in Latvia, all over – nothing as impressive as China, but a few instances of sinkholes appearing rather suddenly. Most often in areas named after the devil and such. Heh.

Comments are closed.