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


Visitor Writer: James Ormiston
Palaeontology MSci Graduate / Palaeoartist

You very probably 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. You could, 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 different… “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 could be very a lot actual. Like Anning she represented a uncommon breed: the Victorian “Girl Geologist”. Ladies had been, usually, 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 approach within the perceived gentlemanly discipline of earth science.

Ladies had been thought to lack the rationality and resilience to deal with scientific debate and fieldwork. The male perspective 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 title 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 large, centuries-old Altyre Property in Morayshire, Scotland. Mary’s journey into prehistory was initially pushed by monetary necessity to complement her household’s poor earnings from an early age. Girl Eliza picked it up virtually as a pastime in her 40s after having 12 kids, and sometimes had different folks 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 a whole bunch of fossils, lots of which at the moment are housed in museums in Scotland, England and Switzerland, she died in 1842 solely 3 years after her introduction.

Girl Eliza was already a lady of science, as she was an completed horticulturalist revered for her flower crosses. However the discovery of exceptionally well-preserved fossil fish at a close-by limestone quarry steered her in the direction of extra historic life kinds. Her curiosity in fossils was additional influenced by the arrival of some well-known geologists of the time who had been investigating Scotland’s Previous Pink Sandstone formations. Girl Eliza would be part of them on their journeys across the Moray Firth, as reminisced by her travel-writer daughter Constance…

“Amongst my vivid reminiscences 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 Previous Pink Sandstone in Ross-shire, on the opposite facet of the Moray Firth. Related fossils had simply been discovered within the Lethen-bar Lime Quarries, on the opposite facet 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 staff to carry her fossils discovered on the Lethen Bar quarry (which not exists, however its location has been deduced from historic information by Andrews, 1983), paying extra for prime quality specimens. She would then apply her eager creative abilities to create detailed drawings and work of among 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 rigorously lifting from a dogcart the spoils of the day, specifically gray nodules which, when gently tapped with a hammer, break up in two, revealing the 2 good sides of unusual fossil fishes, with the very color of the scales nonetheless vivid. Day-to-day 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 considered one of 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 discipline of palaeoichthyology who was delighted to seek out that almost all of her assortment comprised Devonian fossil fish (he’s additionally a controversial determine resulting from his troubling views on race, one thing that reached into the best echelons of science on the time, such because the “Father of Palaeontology” Georges Cuvier, of whom Agassiz was a scholar). He trawled by 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 (Previous Pink 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 have to put within the first line what Girl Gordon Cumming did so as to illustrate this historic fauna. Not content material with gathering and distributing to geologists, with unequalled liberality, the quite a few copies of those treasured particles which she had collected in a quarry exploited for this function, she studied them rigorously, set aside probably the most good 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 always assisted her in these research, will kind one of many important ornaments of my Monograph. By delivering this assortment to the general public, it’s painful for me to suppose that this noble Girl will not be capable of gather the tribute herself so justly deserving of the popularity of geologists. Might this reminiscence, sown on her grave, remind her worthy follower that the eagerness she put in helping 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 considered one of 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 right down to destiny that, together with a lot of her potential legacy, this specific 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 might nicely have been a mixture of the sheer quantity of specimens, their diligent visible recording and the increase of the household’s social class that led to Agassiz, Murchison and others making certain that the Altyre Assortment acquired the reward that it did. This was a time of nice pleasure within the palaeontological group because the Previous Pink 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 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 sort of a major prevalence, contemplating that even the now-world well-known Mary Anning was seldom credited for her finds. Ladies 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 suppose for themselves.

That is implied by the result of Girl Eliza’s transition from specimen illustrations to scientific reconstructions. There have been many species in her assortment solely recognized 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 ultimate days earlier than succumbing to beginning problems, intent on presenting her concepts to the scientific group 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 dying, 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 Previous Pink 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 completed had been she not misplaced so quickly after embarking on her prehistoric journey? We are going to sadly by no means know. From the yr of her passing there’s a path of breadcrumbs in numerous 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 carry her finds to life (aided by her excessive societal standing), Girl Eliza may nicely have grow to be one of many first skilled feminine palaeontologists.  As put by the traditional Chinese language thinker Lao Tzu: “The flame that burns twice as vibrant burns half as lengthy.”


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

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

Burek, C.V. & Higgs, B., “The Position of Ladies within the Historical past and Improvement 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 yr 1842.” (1842)

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

Edited by Rhys Charles







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