Dr. Janet Vida Watson's geology career is a love story.
She loved her rocks immensely. To her, they weren't inert, cold stone. They had character. They had emotions. She loved her "happy rocks," and trusted them more than she trusted the isotopes labs wrested from them (though she never shied away from new technology: on the contrary, she eagerly embraced it). She turned to them throughout her career, and they imparted their life stories to her, sometimes revolutionizing an aspect of earth science in the process.
She loved geology so much she did it on her honeymoon, with her groom, John Sutton. She adored field work, and teaching students to do this good science of rock-breaking. She loved it to the end of her life.
And she loved her husband John, whom she'd met while pursuing field research as a graduate student. From those very first days together biking the Scottish Highlands to the end of her life, they never stopped working together. On the day before she died, John stood up at a Discussion Meeting of the Royal Society of London, and read their last joint paper, "Lineaments of the Continental Lithosphere."
Can you believe we'd almost lost her to biology?
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Janet was born in Hampstead, London on September 1st, 1923. She was born into science. Her father, David M.S. Watson, was a vertebrate paleontologist and professor at the University of London. Before marrying David, Janet's mother, Katherine M. Parker, had conducted research in embryology. Janet shared some of her parents' passion for biology: she even kept show mice as a child. And yet, rocks had also caught her attention: when she graduated from Reading University in 1943, she held first class honors bachelor of science degrees in both geology and biology.
But for a while, it certainly looked like she would follow her mother's footsteps: after graduating, her first job was investigating chicken growth at the National Institute for Research in Dairying. And she briefly taught biology at Wentworth School, an institution for girls, before those happy rocks called her back to geology.
Her father's connections to Britain's science community told him the best place for his daughter's hard rock geology education would be Imperial College, London. She applied there in 1945, as WWII was reaching its crescendo; she graduated with her BSc in Geology in 1947. It was a time when women had stepped forward and proved their competence in a plethora of disciplines and trades, but it still wasn't smooth sailing for a woman wanting to enter a traditionally masculine field. Many of the men in the geology department weren't quite sure how to deal with a woman in their domain. They expected women to be, at best, staff members (but certainly not professors!), and Janet remembered that having her as a fellow student "fluttered a few dovecotes." Her competence flummoxed them further. She was an outstanding geologist, scoring outstanding marks on her honors exams.
The head of the geology department, H.H. Read, took note of her talent. He would later speak of her as "the most outstanding young metamorphic geologist in the Commonwealth," and he could see her potential even before she'd begun her graduate studies. In the aftermath of the war, he was putting a research team together. He wanted Janet on it. She accepted his offer, became his student, and joined the motley team of veterans, foreign students, and other women he'd assembled.
Post-war England couldn't provide its graduate students with state-of-the-art equipment: the department was lucky to have a light table, and one of the mainstays of hard rock geology, thin sections, were hard to come by. But what Read's team lacked in physical resources, they more than made up for in intellectual power. And Janet was the person everyone went to who needed any information regarding the mineralogy and petrology of metamorphic rocks.
Read put her talents to immediate use, sending her to the Highlands of Scotland to work on untangling the complex history of the migmatites of Sutherland. And then he introduced her to the second great love of her life. He paired her with John Sutton, a recently-returned veteran of the Royal Army Ordinance Corps with a ready smile and the geology chops to match Janet's. The two of them hopped on bicycles to investigate the complex history of the Lewisian complex, eventually untangling it enough to discover that not one but two orogenies had shaped it.
Janet never hesitated to investigate the potential of new technology, but she still placed her trust more in the rocks than lab work and isotopes. That trust was richly borne out by the rocks she studied: the story she discerned from the relation of dykes and ancient sedimentary structures to the metamorphic rocks of the Highlands was confirmed by radiometric dating. The work she did with John would later have a major impact on the studies of Precambrian geologic complexes worldwide.
In 1949, with PhD theses completed, Janet and John headed over to the Channel Islands for their wedding and honeymoon. Their passion for geology was so strong they couldn't help doing fieldwork while they celebrated their union. A few years later, their newlywed investigations resulted in a joint paper on the Island of Sark's marvelous geology.
Janet and John stayed at Imperial College with Read after obtaining their PhDs, with Janet winning a senior stewardship that allowed her to stay on. They continued their work on Scotland's Precambrian geology. Janet was the careful observer, while John was the idea person. Janet, a precise and talented writer, wrote the bulk of their joint papers. She also coauthored two geology textbooks with Read, while working as his research assistant. He depended heavily on her knowledge, skill, and competence, especially in his later years.
In other times, and had Janet been a different woman, she may have remained in the orbits of her mentor and her husband, a perpetual sidekick. But she'd been among the first women to graduate with honors from the geology department at the Royal School of Mines. She'd gained recognition for her outstanding work and her extensive knowledge. And then, in 1974, she became the first woman geology professor at Imperial College.
Janet wasted no time excelling in her new role. The very next year, the college appointed her to a personal chair. She was now a research professor of geology, and she set about establishing her own research school. She kept her students enthralled; her speaking skills, despite pre-lecture jitters, were formidable. She could not only present geology clearly and concisely, but compellingly. And she brought them into the field, introducing them to her "happy rocks" and igniting in them a passion for puzzling out the stories in stones. Her ability to connect to students led to her heading the list of desired speakers for student organizations throughout Britain.
She wasted no time making an impact on Imperial College and the geosciences. She poured her energy into ensuring Imperial College made its mark on the earth sciences worldwide. And she didn't limit herself to her own specialty; she used her knowledge of biology in her geology research, and encouraged cross-disciplinary endeavors. She was quickly in high demand for committees and recognized worldwide for her contributions.
In 1979, her contributions to science led to her election as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific institution in the world. She was soon serving as a member of the council, and later served as vice president of that prestigious body from 1983 until her death.
As one of the few women to both become a Fellow of the Royal Society and serve on its governing bodies, Janet established herself as a trailblazing woman in the geosciences. And by the 1970s, she was intent on expanding women's contributions and opportunities. "She was quietly keen to encourage young women to take up geology," one of her colleagues said in remembrance of her, and the truth of that shows in her many efforts. In addition to the students she mentored, "she organized a meeting on women in geology, one of the first of its kind in the UK." And that meeting wasn't just a small in-group affair: Janet got folks from all over the scientific spheres, including public and private as well as academic institutions.
She also set the women of Imperial College's Royal School of Mines on firm professional footing with the British Geological Survey. After her, it could no longer be assumed RSM women were only family members of the professors.
Janet didn't slow down when the early 80s arrived and she approached retirement. She became the first woman to ever serve as president of the Geological Society, serving in that post from 1982-84. She worked tirelessly there to gain funding and improve accommodation. Under her watch and with her initiative, the new journal Petroleum Geochemistry was founded, and the Society got an archive store.
She retired from Imperial College in 1983, but retirement hardly slowed her down. "She revised the accepted hypothesis for uranium deposits in Italy," another biographer notes. And in 1985, as she neared the end of her life, she brought members of the Royal Society and the Geological Society together for a visit to the Ministry of Geology and Mineral Resources of China. The collaboration she started bore rich fruit: three projects sprang from that visit and lasted long beyond her death.
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Janet Vida Watson changed geology in large ways and small throughout her professional life. She transformed our understanding of Scottish geology, made the earth sciences a far more welcoming and nurturing world for women, and was instrumental in ensuring Imperial College's research programs thrived. Few other women have had the opportunity, skills, and mentors available to accomplish so much. She is one of those giants whose shoulders we'll be standing on for centuries to come.
Barrett, Anne: Women At Imperial College; Past, Present And Future
Bowes, D.R.: Janet Watson—an appreciation and bibliography
Haines, Catharine M.C.: International Women in Science: A Biographical Dictionary to 1950
The National Archives: Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of JANET VIDA WATSON FRS (1923 - 1985)
Park, Graham: Janet Vida Watson, FRS: an appreciation
Reveal, Judith C.: Watson, Janet Vida (1923–1985)