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Scotland’s Girl Of The Devonian – The Bristol Dinosaur Mission Weblog


    Visitor Writer: James Ormiston
    Palaeontology MSci Graduate / Palaeoartist

    You very seemingly 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. It’s possible you’ll, or could not, know that it’s doubtlessly unlikely that Anning was the true inspiration for the rhyme (the rhyme is far 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 girl it describes may be very a lot actual. Like Anning she represented a uncommon breed: the Victorian “Girl Geologist”. Girls had been, generally, not unusual in 19th Century geology. The wives of males like William Buckland had been additionally trusty analysis assistants, however it was uncommon to discover a girl dictating her personal method within the perceived gentlemanly subject of earth science.

    Girls had 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 Girl Eliza Maria Gordon-Cumming. Her lengthy identify could give a clue that her background was markedly completely different to Mary Anning’s.

    Whereas Mary was born into modest environment, the daughter of a cupboard maker, Girl 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 Girl 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 revenue from an early age. Girl Eliza picked it up virtually 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 rationale behind Girl Eliza’s relative obscurity is the tragic brevity of her actions. Regardless of amassing doubtlessly tons of of fossils, lots of which are actually housed in museums in Scotland, England and Switzerland, she died in 1842 solely 3 years after her introduction.

    Girl Eliza was already a girl of science, as she was an achieved horticulturalist revered for her flower crosses. However the discovery of exceptionally well-preserved fossil fish at a close-by limestone quarry steered her in direction of extra historic life types. Her curiosity in fossils was additional influenced by the arrival of some well-known geologists of the time who had been investigating Scotland’s Outdated Purple Sandstone formations. Girl 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 had 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 had been deeply within the newly found fossil fish within the Outdated Purple 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 had been a supply of eager curiosity to my mom, and it was to seek for extra that the geologists had been invited to Altyre.”

    Girl Eliza was in a position to make use of her private wealth and connections to nice impact. She paid employees 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 top of the range specimens. She would then apply her eager inventive skills to create detailed drawings and work of a number of 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 fastidiously lifting from a dogcart the spoils of the day, particularly gray nodules which, when gently tapped with a hammer, break 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 the very best specimens had been despatched to the British Museum, the place they nonetheless stay, and the place sure fishes hitherto unknown, had been referred to as after my mom.”

    Illustration by Girl Eliza of one in all 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 skilled within the subject of palaeoichthyology who was delighted to search out that the majority of her assortment comprised Devonian fossil fish (he’s additionally a controversial determine because of 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 scholar). He trawled via the mountain of piscine stays and recognized plenty of new species. Within the publication of his influential work on Devonian fish, “Monographie des poissons fossiles du vieux grés rouge: ou système Dévonien (Outdated Purple Sandstone) des Iles Britanniques et de Russie”, he constantly thanks Girl 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 need to put within the first line what Girl Gordon Cumming did in an effort to illustrate this historic fauna. Not content material with gathering and distributing to geologists, with unequalled liberality, the quite a few copies of those valuable particles which she had collected in a quarry exploited for this objective, she studied them fastidiously, set aside essentially the most excellent copies, and painted them with a precision of element and an inventive expertise that only a few naturalists had been capable of obtain. So her drawings and people of her daughter, who continuously assisted her in these research, will type one of many predominant ornaments of my Monograph. By delivering this assortment to the general public, it’s painful for me to assume that this noble Girl will now not be capable to gather the tribute herself so justly deserving of the popularity of geologists. Could this reminiscence, sown on her grave, remind her worthy follower that the eagerness she put in aiding 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 one in all his newly discovered species after Girl 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 Girl Eliza and her daughter weren’t alone of their efforts. However it could properly have been a mixture of the sheer quantity of specimens, their diligent visible recording and the enhance of the household’s social class that led to Agassiz, Murchison and others guaranteeing that the Altyre Assortment obtained the reward that it did. This was a time of nice pleasure within the palaeontological neighborhood because the Outdated Purple Sandstone was being intensely surveyed, and plenty of of Girl Eliza’s fossils had been crucial on this “Devonian Enlightenment”.

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

    That is implied by the end result of Girl Eliza’s transition from specimen illustrations to scientific reconstructions. There have been many species in her assortment solely identified 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 last days earlier than succumbing to beginning 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 printed alongside his well-known work on the Silurian. However shortly after her loss of life, her daughter Anne additionally wrote to Murchison, this time apologising for Girl 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) cause 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 Girl Eliza’s contacts, had merged specimens of fish from the Outdated Purple 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 had been riddled with sexist remarks about girls in science is unlikely to be a coincidence…

    What else could she have achieved had been she not misplaced so quickly after embarking on her prehistoric journey? We’ll sadly by no means know. From the 12 months 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 strains and footnotes. Had she continued her work, and maintained the inquisitive dedication to deliver her finds to life (aided by her excessive societal standing), Girl Eliza may properly have change into one of many first skilled feminine palaeontologists.  As put by the traditional Chinese language thinker Lao Tzu: “The flame that burns twice as shiny burns half as lengthy.”


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

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

    Burek, C.V. & Higgs, B., “The Function of Girls within the Historical past and Growth of Geology” (2007)

    Gordon-Cumming, C. F., “Reminiscences” (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 12 months 1842.” (1842)

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

    Edited by Rhys Charles