Later On

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Fascinating woman

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Marie Stopes:

When David Gelsthorpe took up his new job last year as curator of palaeontology at the Manchester Museum, one of the UK’s great Victorian institutions, among his first tasks was cataloguing its scattered collection of fossils. As he opened boxes and checked labels he spotted a familiar name: Marie Stopes. Like most, he knew Stopes as the pioneer of sexual equality for women. He also knew that before she won fame as the champion of birth control and a woman’s right to sexual fulfilment, Stopes had made a name for herself as an expert on fossil plants. “These ‘lost’ specimens show that she was as pioneering in her pursuit of fossils as she was in social reform,” says Gelsthorpe.

Stopes arrived in Manchester in 1904 with a reputation for flouting regulations and defying convention. She had bent the rules to complete her degree at University College London in just two years. Then Stopes was off to Germany to study at the Botanical Institute in Munich on a research scholarship. The lone woman among 500 men, she was unable to speak the language and barred from taking a doctorate because she was a woman. Stopes worked furiously, learned German and had the rules changed. In 1904 she returned home with her doctorate and started a job at the University of Manchester, where she was the first woman to teach science. Stopes had also fallen in love: out of 500 men, she had picked the one that Edwardian England was least likely to approve of – Kenjiro Fujii, a man almost twice her age, married and Japanese.

In Manchester, Stopes taught student doctors and engineers, gave lectures to working men on the joys of plants, and collected fossils. “The fossils provide glimpses into the life of a quite extraordinary woman,” says Gelsthorpe. “She crawled along mine shafts, hacked her way through some of the wildest parts of Japan and even tried to join Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.”

Towards the end of 1904, Robert Scott, recently returned from his Discovery expedition to Antarctica, visited Manchester during a fund-raising tour to pay off the expedition’s debts. Stopes met him at a lunch and again the same evening at a dance. She was smitten – not with Scott but with the idea of joining him on his next voyage to Antarctica.

Only a few years earlier, Austrian geologist Eduard Suess had suggested that the southern continents had once been part of a single landmass, which he called Gondwanaland. The best evidence for this came from fossils, in particular fossils of a long-extinct group of plants known as seed ferns. These had been found in a band stretching round the southern hemisphere, from South America to Africa, India and Australia. The last piece of the puzzle was Antarctica: if seed ferns had once grown there then Suess had to be right.

Scott, Stopes confided to a friend, was the most “divine waltzer and reverser” she had ever met. He was also diplomatic and promised that if it proved impossible to take her, he would try to find the fossils she wanted. According to the museum’s “autograph book”, a visitor’s book for VIPs, on 1 December 1904 Scott called on Stopes for a crash course in fossil recognition, a lesson that would prove invaluable eight years later.

In the meantime there were mines for Stopes to explore. At the turn of the 20th century, working in a coal mine was difficult, dirty and dangerous, but that was no deterrent. The mines around Manchester were a good place to hunt for coal balls, lumps of mineralised plant material that contained parts of extinct plants so complete it was possible to piece together their structure and biology. Much to the astonishment of miners and mine owners, Stopes insisted on doing her own collecting. Clad in a long gown and armed with a hammer, she picked and poked her way along the coal seams. No one should have been surprised: Stopes’s idea of fun was tramping across mountains, bogs and glaciers. “I must have some exploration,” she wrote to her professor in Munich. “And coal mines are the only things here to take the place of mountains or tropical forests.”

Questions about how coal and coal balls formed were immensely important, but the biggest palaeobotanical question of the day concerned the origins of the angiosperms, or flowering plants. When had they appeared and how had they given rise to so many species in so short a time? Charles Darwin had called it an “abominable mystery”. Stopes was no doubt interested in the question, but she had another reason to get excited about angiosperms: the earliest traces of flowering plants were leaf impressions found in Japan. Fujii, the man she hoped to marry, was back in Tokyo and in 1906 wrote to say he was divorced. “Marie had to find a way to get to Japan,” says Gelsthorpe. “The angiosperms provided the excuse.”

Solving the mystery of the angiosperms required more complete fossils with fruits and seeds, and the most likely place to find them was in Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. Stopes asked Fujii to send some rock nodules from Hokkaido, and amazingly the very first one she opened contained an angiosperm. She could hardly believe her luck: armed with the new finds, she persuaded the Royal Society of London to fund her one-woman expedition to Japan.

In August 1907, Stopes arrived in Yokohama. Ten days later, after a brief reunion with Fujii, she left for Hokkaido. Western women were a rarity in Japan and female scientists didn’t exist at all. “They all marvel at me as though I were some curious kind of butterfly,” she wrote in A Journal from Japan. Rather than try to block her efforts, however, the Japanese authorities gave her every assistance – too much, she complained. By the time she reached Hokkaido, she had acquired an entourage of more than 30 men, including her own personal policeman.

Hokkaido was wild and little explored, and when the road ran out the expedition had to struggle through dense bamboo forests and along riverbeds. Stopes soon swapped her muslin frocks for short Japanese trousers and jacket and her boots for straw sandals that gave a better grip on wet stones. She conceded that her unwanted companions had their uses after heavy rains had turned the riverbed tracks into dangerous waterways full of deep pools. “Without a couple of them to put their feet to make steps or to give a hand around corners, I could not have got along at all. How the loaded coolies could manage I cannot imagine. It was only the feeling that as I was the leader I daren’t show fright, that kept me going over some of those places. However, we were well rewarded, for the fossils I got that afternoon were the best obtained so far.”

Stopes made many other trips during her 18 months in Japan. Between stints cutting fossils in the lab, she went down coal mines, to the dismay of her terrified escorts, and collected the first fossil insects from the now famous fossil lake at Shiobara. And she found what she was looking for – the earliest example of a fossil fruit of what was undoubtedly a flowering plant. The fossil remained the earliest evidence of angiosperms for many years.

Love proved more elusive. Fujii’s ardour cooled. To put her off he pretended to have leprosy. Stopes returned to Manchester with her fossils – just in time for Scott’s expedition to Antarctica. It was impossible for her to go, of course, and she was bitterly disappointed.

When Scott and his men died on their return from the South Pole, they famously had with them 16 kilograms of rocks and fossils, which they had refused to abandon despite the terrible conditions. Although Scott never knew it, among the fossils was the missing piece of the Gondwana puzzle.

Written by Leisureguy

23 December 2007 at 11:53 am

Posted in Science

2 Responses

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  1. The issue of Marie Stopes and Robert Falcon Scott came up recently at a conference in Hobart – Antarctic Visions (June 21 – 23rd 2010). I have had a long career working on Antarctic fossil plants, and was well aware of the plants collected on Scott’s fatal expedition. But I had never heard of the story of Marie Stope’s involvement and find it most interesting. What I would like to know is – are there some primary sources for this – diaries etc? Would love to know the basis of the story of the encounter!
    Liz Truswell


    Elizabeth Truswell

    26 June 2010 at 10:29 pm

  2. I have no more knowledge than the post, but I would encourage you to contact David Gelsthorpe at the Museum. That seems the obvious place to start.



    27 June 2010 at 7:06 am

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