It’s International Women’s Day. While we’re appreciating living women worldwide, let’s celebrate some of the pioneering women who made the current state of earth science knowledge possible.
Geology has many fathers, and we know them well. But few of us can name its mothers. Mothers who sacrificed far more than most of the men did – many women could only succeed in the geosciences if they remained unmarried and childless (and some organizations, like the British Geological Survey, made that a formal requirement). They fought discrimination and doubt. They worked hard for a fraction of the recognition their male colleagues got. Despite all the decks stacked against them, they made important contributions to our knowledge of the world. Forgetting the women who left us geoscience legacies is intolerable. We need to remember.
This series seeks to restore these women to our lexicon of famous geologists.
Zonia Baber (1862-1955) is one of those people you aspire to be and fear you will never manage to become even half as good as.
And I only chose her as our first Pioneering Woman in Geology because of her name. I had this list of women I knew next to nothing about, and I hovered a finger over it, and said, “There. That’s an interesting name. Let’s start with her.” Then I found out she was a geographer, when I’d hoped to begin with a geologist. She was a teacher, when I’d wanted women who worked in the field. An American, when I’d hoped to start with a different country. Bugger. But Mary Arizona “Zonia” Baber? Still couldn’t resist the name. So I read past the first sentence in the Wikipedia article, and promptly fell in love. She co-founded the Geographic Society of Chicago, which was modeled after the National Geographic society? Awesome! Involved in social issues? Brilliant! Feminist, even so! And then I found out that she’d got her start in geology. Her geography had rock and earth all the way through. Outstanding.
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?
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.
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.
At the age of 105, Inge Lehmann (1888-1993) looked back on a long, productive life with satisfaction. During her career in seismology, she had made two major discoveries and made other significant contributions. She’d won multiple prestigious awards, become a fellow of the Royal Society, and had honorary doctorates bestowed by Columbia University and the University of Copenhagan.She was an immensely talented seismologist.
She experienced her first earthquake when she was growing up in Østerbro, Denmark. “I may have been 15 or 16 years old when, on a Sunday morning, I was sitting at home together with my mother and sister, and the floor began to move under us,” she later wrote. “The hanging lamp swayed. It was very strange. My father came into the room. “It was an earthquake,” he said. The center had evidently been at a considerable distance, for the movements felt slow and not shaky. In spite of a great deal of effort, an accurate epicenter was never found. This was my only experience with an earthquake until I became a seismologist 20 years later.”
Dr. Janet Vida Watson’s geology career is a love story.
She loved her rocks immensely. To her, they weren’t inert, cold stone. They had character. They had emotions. She loved her “happy rocks,” and trusted them more than she trusted the isotopes labs wrested from them (though she never shied away from new technology: on the contrary, she eagerly embraced it). She turned to them throughout her career, and they imparted their life stories to her, sometimes revolutionizing an aspect of earth science in the process.
She loved geology so much she did it on her honeymoon, with her groom, John Sutton. She adored field work, and teaching students to do this good science of rock-breaking. She loved it to the end of her life.