Marie Stopes the Palaeobotanist

Manchester Museum, and the University of Manchester have been shaped by the many personalities who have worked and studied here, as well as those who have collected and researched objects in the collection. One such pioneer is Marie Stopes. David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Sciences at Manchester Museum, has written and presented many times about Marie Stopes, and in celebration of would have been her 137th birthday, we are delighted to reprint one of David’s papers about this remarkable woman.

Marie Stopes – Manchester, Scott of the Antarctic and her adventures in Japan

Marie Stopes (1880-1958) is best known for her work as a pioneer in contraception and womens’ rights (see Hall 1977; Briant 1962; Rose 1992 for comprehensive biographies). Her reputation as one of the foremost social reformers of the twentieth century is rightly deserved. Before this, she had a little known career as a palaeobotanist (Chaloner 2005). Much of her collection now resides in Manchester Museum and illustrates the passion of this remarkable woman.

Marie Stopes.jpgMarie Stopes (Image from Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester)

Marie was exposed to scientific recording and visiting academics from an early age. Her father Henry Stopes an architect, was a passionate archaeologist and rented an Elizabethan manor house in Swanscombe, Kent. Marie was trained to follow him and to wash and catalogue the flints he collected.

In 1902 she took both botany and geology Honours degrees at University College London within two years of starting university. She also won the University’s Gilchrist Scholarship which enabled her to do postgraduate work abroad.

Having taken her degree so quickly, Marie had an extra few months to spare at University College. This of course, she did not waste and became a research assistant to Professors F. W. Oliver and D. H. Scott. Both men were pioneers in reproductive palaeobotany and no doubt encouraged her in her first scientific publications: On the Leaf-Structure of Cordaites (Stopes 1903a) and The ‘Epidermoidal’ layer of Calamite roots (Stopes 1903b).

In 1903, Marie took up the opportunity of postgraduate work in Munich and became the only woman amongst 500 men. The Botanical Institute gave her the opportunity to work with Professor K. Goebel one of Europe’s leading plant morphologists. In 1904 she achieved her doctorate on cycads seed structure and function.

Whilst at the Botanical Institute, Marie met Kuyiro Fujii from Tokyo’s Imperial University, who had published widely on the structure of Ginkgo biloba. She quickly developed feelings for him, but he was married with a child and was an atheist. Understandably, she was reluctant to get involved and in the summer of 1904 she returned to England.

Stopes, Manchester and Scott of the Antarctic

Shortly before leaving Munich, Marie had applied for the post of junior lecturer and demonstrator in botany, at Owens College Manchester (later to become the University of Manchester). She held little hope of getting the job, as no women had ever been appointed to University scientific staff in the north of England before. After prolonged debate amongst the University Council and a recommendation by Weiss (Chair of Botany), they agreed to her appointment (Watson 2005).

By the end of her first term in Manchester, Marie’s enthusiasm for palaeobotany had taken her in some surprising ways. Not only was she giving lectures to medical and engineering students, but she also gave public lectures to the people of the Manchester slums. Unfortunately, their response to Cycads and the Inferior Oolite has been lost in the midst of time.

As well as teaching she continued to pursue her research. As part of her doctorate at London University, she was collaborating with Fujii on plant structure of gymnosperms (Stopes and Fujii 1906). In 1905, she became the youngest doctor of science in Britain.

Her real passion though, became the study of coal and coal balls. Coal balls are a mass of plant debris which can be sectioned revealing the plant structures inside. The concentrated fossils show details of the stems, leaves and roots that are difficult to gain from a single fossil on a bedding surface. Manchester was well placed between the Lancashire and Yorkshire coalfields and at the time provided the richest source of coal balls in the world.

She published several papers on coal balls (for example Stopes 1907b) and her work with Watson became the standard reference for some time (Stopes and Watson 1908). Many of her thins sections are housed at Manchester Museum (see R.34).

Marie was not content to sit and wait for specimens to be handed to her and insisted on going down the mines herself. As a result, she built up a good relationship with several mine owners. One local mine owner, Mr. W. H. Sutcliff collected specimens for Marie which led to the discovery of a new species from the Coal Measures Tubicaulis sutcliffii, which she named in his honor (Stopes 1906) (see T.7).

Marie Stopes_1Tubicaulis sutcliffi, a fern from the Coal measures (Image from: Manchester Museum, Collection Online)

A long running line of research was Mesozoic flora. This first began with her research on the Middle Jurassic flora of the Brora coast in Scotland (Stopes 1907a). For the first time, the flora was comprehensively described allowing close comparisons to be made to the flora collected by Murchison on the Yorkshire coast.

Aside from Marie’s academic talent and hard work she led a hectic social life, organizing and attending social events. The departmental fancy dress party seems to have been one of the highlights. It was enjoyed with such gusto that Mrs. Weiss (wife of the Chair of Botany), felt the need to write to her warning that her unconventional behavior was inadvisable (Hall 1977: 52).

In 1904, Robert Falcon Scott visited Manchester on a lecture tour to raise money to pay off the debts of his previous voyage on the Discovery. Marie had been invited to a dinner to meet him. Over dinner and the subsequent dancing, she began to persuade him to take her on the expedition he was preparing to the Antarctic pole.

In the cold light to day, Scott realised the impracticalities of her suggestion. His response to Marie was that he would take her if it could possibly be arranged, but if he could not ‘he would do his utmost to find to find fossils she wanted’ (Briant 1962: 48). Marie most likely showed him Australian examples of Glossopteris fossils she had intended to collect in Antarctica (L.10538). Scott’s visit to the museum is recorded in the autograph book (see the signature at the bottom of this article).

Scott’s journals show that Amundsen’s Norwegian flag was at the pole when the party arrived. The scientific investigations then became the main focus of the expedition and justification for the cost. When Scott’s body was eventually found, plant fossils collected by the party on the return from the pole were found near him.

The fossils were subsequently described by Seward (1914) as Glossopteris. This was the first recorded occurrence of this plant in Antarctica. It formed a vital piece of evidence for a super-continent in the southern hemisphere 200 million years ago called Gondwana. At the time Glossipteris fossils had been found in Australia, South America, Africa and India, but never before in Antarctica (Chaloner 2005).

Adventures in Japan

In 1906, Marie and Fujii acknowledged they were in love with each other and agreed to marry eighteen months later when his divorce had come through. Fujii’s academic career lay in Japan and Marie did not earn enough money to support him in Manchester, so Marie had to find a way to get to Japan. The answer lay in the origin of angiosperms.

Marie had long been interested in the origin of angiosperms and she was aware that the oldest fossils were found in Japan. Fujii sent her some nodules from the island of Hokkaido, where she thought the angiosperm fossils were most likely to be preserved. The first specimen she examined revealed an angiosperm. Marie was awarded a grant from the Royal Society to continue her work in Japan on the strength of these finds.

In the following months, letters from Fujii show that his love for Marie had waned, but by this time she had committed to her trip and hoped things might be different when her ship arrived.

On 7 August 1907, Marie arrived in Japan. After ten days, she set off on her first collecting trip to Hokkaido. The authorities insisted on sending Marie with an interpreter, two guides, thirty coolies and a policeman, all much to her protestations. The going was quite arduous. The only way through the forest was to take the river beds, negotiating six-foot bamboo and strong rapids. In her journal (Stopes 1910) she writes:

‘August 24th: Really it is hard work to carry tents and everything along these rivers. Often I alone find it difficult to go, and I have nothing to carry – except my fan and hammer, both of which are in constant use.’

After Marie’s trip to Hokkaido she spent many hours in the laboratory preparing sections from the material she had collected. She also undertook as many trips as she could to investigate Japan’s palaeontology, this time without her entourage.

One such trip was to Shiobara, a hot spring resort in central Japan. The site is famous in Japan for exceptional preservation of Palaeogene leaves such as maple (KK.265.13).

Marie Stopes_2.jpgAcer monspessulanum, a fossil collected by Marie Stopes in Japan (Image from: Manchester Museum Collection Online)

Marie also collected several exceptionally preserved fossil insects (L.8042.a).

Marie Stopes_3.jpgDiptera fossil collected by Marie Stopes in Japan. (Image from: Manchester Museum Collection Online)

As Marie suspected, her relationship with Fujii was dead. She only met with him a few times whilst she was in Japan. Fujii increasingly refused to see her saying he was gravely ill with leprosy. He subsequently lived a long and healthy life and was eighty-six when he died (Hall 1977: 73).

Marie’s work on the early angiosperms she discovered was highly significant. The most important was the triocular ovary which was described as Cretovarium japonicum (Stopes and Fujii 1909; Stopes 1910c). This was dated to Santonian which is roughly equivalent to Upper Cretaceous Chalk in northern Europe. Since then other specimens have predated Marie’s (for example Friis and Crepet 1987).

Life after Japan

After returning to Manchester Marie was promoted to lecturer in botany and was commissioned by the Natural History Museum, London to undertake a full scale catalogue of their Cretaceous flora (Stopes 1913; Stopes 1915). On her return, as well as lecturing she published seven major papers including ‘Studies on the structure and affinities of Cretaceous plants’ (Stopes and Fujii 1910) and ‘Ancient plants’ (Stopes 1910b) the first popular account of palaeobotany. In 1910, she resigned her post at the University saying that her ill-health was caused by the climate in Manchester and moved to London.

Marie, went on to do work on Carboniferous flora of New Brunswick for the Canadian government. During World War I, her coal research proved vital to power the war machine.

Discussion and conclusion

Marie Stopes was clearly a pioneer from a very early age, both in terms of her brilliant academic ability and her determination to achieve the seemingly impossible. After all, when Marie needed a reason to go to Japan she quickly found a way, through her passion for palaeobotany.

It is easy to underestimate how difficult it must have been for Marie in the early 1900s. British society was tentatively emerging from the austerity of the long years of Victoria’s rule and it was some time until 1918, when women finally got the vote.

The often remarkable men she came into contact with were clearly charmed by Marie’s character, but at the same time had a genuine respect for her scientific ability. The Natural History Museum, London asked Marie to compile their Cretaceous flora catalogue and Scott turned to Marie for suggestions of which fossils to collect during his limited time on the ice. Her work on coal balls and early angiosperms were benchmark publications.

Much of the time, Marie was seen as an honorary man by her contemporaries. This was particularly true on her trip to Japan, where the thought of a woman conducting fieldwork in harsh conditions would have been impossible at that time. However, this status did not always open doors. Had she been a man, would her request to join Scott’s ill-fated polar expedition have been taken seriously?

IMG_1563Blue Plaque commemorating Marie Stopes’ life and work at the University of Manchester.

It is tempting for historians to concentrate on Marie’s later achievements in social reform and womens’ rights. The significance of her early life should not be underestimated, as her events prior to 1910 were key to defining her character. The skills she gained through becoming a pioneering woman in palaeobotany and dealing with officials such as the Japanese authorities, prepared her well in tackling the problems she came across later.

David Gelsthorpe
Curator of Earth Sciences, Manchester Museum

I would like to thank the following people: Suzanne Grieve and Leander Wolsenholme for pointing me in the direction of several specimens collected by Stopes, Sam Alberti for helping me find the Scott signature, Steve Devine for help with photography, the librarians at John Rylands Library for providing a photograph of Marie Stopes, Max Jones for help with the Scott research and Henry McGhie for reviewing the manuscript.

Briant, K. 1962, Marie Stopes, A Biography, London: The Hogarth Press

Chaloner, W. G. (2005) ‘The palaeobotanical work of Marie Stopes’, in Bowden, A. J., Burek, C. V. and Wilding, R. (eds) History of Palaeobotany: Selected Essays, 241 127-135, London: Geological Society, London, Special Publications

Friis, E. M. & Crepet, W. L. (1987) ‘Time of appearance of floral features’, in Friss, E. M., Chaloner, W. G. and Crane, P. R. (eds) The Origins of Angiosperms and Their Botanical Consequences, 145-179, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Hall, R. 1977, Marie Stopes, a biography, London: Andre Deutsch Ltd

Rose, J. 1992, Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution, London: Faber & Faber

Seward, A. C. 1914, Catalogue of the fossil plants in the Department of Geology , British Museum. The Wealden Flora – Pt. I. Thallophyta-Pteridophyta, British Museum (Natural History), London.

Stopes, M. C. (1903a) ‘On the Leaf-Structure of Cordaites’. The New Phycologist, 2 (4 & 5), 92-98

Stopes, M. C. (1903b) ‘The ‘Epidermoidal’ layer of Calamite roots’, Annals of Botany, (September) 792-794.

Stopes, M. C. (1906) ‘A new fern from the coal measures: Tubicaulis stucliffii’, Memoirs’ and proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 50 (3) 10

Stopes, M. C. (1907a) ‘The flora of the Inferior Oolite of Brora’, Quarterly Journal Geological Society, 63 (August) 375-382.

Stopes, M. C. (1907b) ‘The relation of the concretionary nodules of the yarra to the calcareous nodules known as ‘coal-balls”, Geological Magazine, 4 (513) 106-108.

Stopes, M. C. (1909) ‘Plant containing nodules from Japan’, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 65 (May) 195-205

Stopes, M.C. 1910a, A journal from Japan. A Daily Record of Life As Seen By a Scientist, London, Glasgow. Glasgow: Blackie & Son, Ltd.

Stopes, M. C. 1910b, Ancient plants. Being a simple account of the past vegetation of the Earth and of the recent important discoveries made in this realm of nature study, Glasgow: Blackie & Son, Ltd.

Stopes, M. C. (1910c) ‘Further observations on the Fossil Flower, Cretovarium’, Annals of Botany, 24 679-681

Stopes, M. C. 1913, The Cretaceous flora. Part I – Bibliography, Algae & Fungi. From: Catalogue of the Mesozoic Plants in the British Museum (Natural History), London, British Museum (Natural History), London.

Stopes, M. C. 1915, The Cretaceous flora. Part II – Lower Greensand (Aptian) plants of Britain. From: Catalogue of the Mesozoic Plants in the British Museum (Natural History), London, British Museum (Natural History), London.

Stopes, M. C. and Fujii, K. (1906) ‘The nutritive relations of the surrounding tissues to the archegonia in gymnosperms’, Beiheft zum Botanischen Centralblatt, 20

Stopes, M. C. and Fujii, K. (1910) ‘Studies on the structure and affinities of Cretaceous plants’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B 201 1-90

Stopes M. C. and Watson, D. M. S. (1908) ‘On the present distribution and origin of the calcareous concretions in coal seams, known as ‘coal balls”, Philosophical transactions of the Royal Societ, B 200 167-218

Watson, J. (2005) ‘One hundred and fifty years of palaeobotany at Manchester University’ in Bowden, A. J., Burek, C. V. and Wilding, R. (eds) History of Palaeobotany: Selected Essays, 241 127-135, London: Geological Society, London, Special Publications


One thought on “Marie Stopes the Palaeobotanist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s