The Scottish Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon (1864-1939, the photo shows her in 1900, image in public domain), or simply May, was the oldest daughter of a clergy family with eight children, five boys and three girls.
The parents valued education and maintained connections to various schools and colleges – Maria entered Merchant Company Schools’ Ladies College in Edinburgh at age of 9. Already in these early years she showed a profound interest in nature and during holidays she enjoyed to explore the landscape of the Highlands accompanied by her elder brother, the later geologist Sir Francis Ogilvie.
May aspired to become a musician and at age 18 she went to London to study music, becoming a promising pianist. However already in the first year her interest to nature prevailed and she decided for a career in science.
Studying both in London and Edinburgh she obtained her degree in geology, botany and zoology in 1890. Maria Ogilvie hoped to continue her studies in Germany, but in 1891, despite efforts and friends, even by the famous geologist Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen (another pioneer geologist of the Dolomites), she was refused at the University of Berlin – as women were still not permitted to enroll for higher education in England and Germany. She went to Munich, where she was received friendly by eminent paleontologist Karl von Zittel (1839-1904) and zoologist Richard von Hertwig (1850-1927). In contrast mineralogist Paul Heinrich von Groth (1843-1927) refused to allow the young women to enter his laboratory. Maria Ogilvie was not allowed to enroll in a regular course of studies even at Munich, research was done as private person and to listen the lectures she had to sit in a separate room with the doors half-open.
July 1891 von Richthofen invited her to join a 5-week trip to the nearby Dolomites, visiting also the Gröden-Valley.
From the first day Maria Ogilvie was immensely impressed by the landscape. Richthofen introduced Maria into alpine geology and the party visited the meadows of Stuores in the Gader-Valley. At the time Maria Ogilvie had studied modern corals and was inclined to become a zoologist, but Richthofen, maybe also after showing her the beautiful preserved fossil corals of Stuores, advised her to become rather a geologist and to study and map this area.
Richthofen was over 60 years old and therefore he couldn’t provide much support in the field, Maria Ogilvie remembers in 1932 the challenges and dangers of field work, sometimes accompanied by a local rock climber named Josef Kostner:
“When I began my field work, I was not under the eye of any Professor. There was no one to include me in his official round of visits among the young geologists in the field, and to subject my maps and sections to tough criticism on the ground. The lack of supervision at the outset was undoubtedly a serious handicap.“
For two summers she hiked, climbed and studied various areas in the Dolomites and instructed local collectors to carefully record and describe their fossils.
In 1893 she published the results in the article “Contributions to the geology of the Wengen and St. Cassian Strata in southern Tyrol“. The article showed various hand-drawn figures of the Dolomites and provided important contributions to the, at the time still poorly know, stratigraphic record of these mountains, establishing marker horizons and describing the ecology of various fossil corals associations. Maria alone described 345 species (today 1.400 species are recognized) of mollusks and corals of the Wengen and St. Cassian Formations.
The published paper, extract of her thesis “The geology of the Wengen and Saint Cassian Strata in southern Tyrol“, finally earned her respect by the scientific community and more important: her Doctor of Science degree in 1893 from the University of London – the first female DSc in the United Kingdom.
The same year she returned into the Dolomites to proceed with her geological and paleontological research and in 1894 she published her second important contribution, the “Coral in the Dolomites of south Tyrol.” Therein Maria Ogilvie emphasized that the classificaton of corals must be based on microscopic examination and characteristics, not as usually done simply on superficial resemblance.
In 1895 she returned to Aberdeen, where she married a longstanding admirer, the physician Dr. John Gordon, husband who (unusual for the times) respected and encouraged her passion for the mountains. He and the four children accompanied Maria on various excursions into the Dolomites.
In 1900 she returned to Munich, becoming the first woman to obtain a PhD there. As thank to her old mentor, palaeontologist von Zittel, she translated his extensive German research on the “Geschichte der Geologie und Palaeontologie” into English as “The History of Geology and Palaeontology.“
Maria Ogilvie continued her studies and continued to publish, mostly privately. In 1913 she was preparing an ulterior important work about the geology and geomorphology of the Dolomites, to be published in Germany, but in 1914 with the onset of World War I and the death of the publisher the finished maps, plates and manuscripts were lost in the general chaos.
Like so many times before Ogilvie didn’t simply surrender. In 1922 she returned into the Dolomites, where she encountered the young paleontologist Julius Pia. Both became friends and in 1922 to 1925 they explored many times together the area.
She published papers on the tectonic evolution of the Dolomites and also books for the interested layman, hoping to share her fascination of the Dolomites with others – the first examples of modern geological guidebooks for this region.
To remember her contributions to paleontology in 2000 a new fossil fern genus, discovered in Triassic sediments of the Dolomites, was named after Maria Gordon – Gordonopteris lorigae.
WACHTLER, M. & BUREK, C.V. (2007): Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon (1864-1939): a Scottish researcher in the Alps. In BUREK, C. V. & HIGGS, B. (eds): The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society: 305-317
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX