The untold stories of amazing marine scientists

295-women-in-science

I’ve been wanting to get this down on paper for a while but I haven’t found a good opportunity. Now, it’s a sunny afternoon in Oban, not a cloud in the sky, and the trees have gone a lovely autumnal golden colour… I should be out cycling, but I can’t contain my enthusiasm any longer.

There are so many amazing women who have worked in marine science over the last 200 years. So. Many.

But nobody is telling their stories. Do you know about Helen Ogilvie? Or Agnes Eleanora Miller? Or Sheina Marshall? Or Isabella Gordon? These Scottish women carried out some inspiring research, but few have heard of them. Why you ask? I have a theory… and it centres around the narrative of marine science, oceanography, and exploration which emerged at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century – when our discipline really took off. That was the heroic age, where scientists accompanied explorers on expeditions all over the world, sampling the deep and writing logbooks and diaries which were lapped up by the Victorian public. Think Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, or of the Challenger Reports (Sir Charles Wyville Thompson and Sir John Murray). Epic journeys which captured the public imagination – men traveling into unseen lands and bringing back creatures never-before-seen.

The staff of the Marine Biological Station at Millport, 1914 (right), and Sheina Marshall (top left), Helen Ogilvie (middle left), and Isabella Gordon (bottom left).

So where were the ladies? They weren’t allowed on ships at sea, so didn’t feature in those expedition logs or journals. But they did work in museums and curate collections, identifying specimens, illustrating new species, and publishing their scientific work. Without them, many discoveries would not have been possible.

A few weeks ago I met with Catherine Booth, the curator for Science and Technology at the National Library of Scotland – a kindred spirit. While I knew about the travels of Sheina Marshall and enthusiasm for discovery of Marie Tharp, she told me about the letters Helen Ogilvie sent to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, and about Isabella Gordon and her great sense of humour. We spent nearly two hours trading stories about these ladies – stories which so few have heard.

Catherine had recently put together an exhibit at the National Library of Scotland highlighting the achievements of a handful of Scottish women scientists, some of whom studied the sea and its creatures. It is easy to be impressed with the recognition these women received for their work – they were inspiring in their determination to follow their passions for their topics of choice. But even more so, I was interested in what they were like: who did they know? who did they write letters to? were they happy when they travelled? what did they do in their spare time?

Isabella Gordon, for instance, had climbed nearly all the mountains in Scotland – a crustacean scientist, and a mountaineer! Clearly a woman after my own heart!

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, and I managed to share some of the achievements of Jeanne Villepreux-Power, Helen Ogilvie, and Isabella Gordon on twitter, using #AdaLovelaceDay, but there is so much more to say. You can’t tell a story very well in 140 characters! So watch this space… I’m hoping to do a bit more work on this topic, on Scottish women and beyond. Every time I find a new connection or interesting fact, I want to follow its trail and see where it leads – to start to write our narrative. A narrative of marine science and the women who made it so.

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