Maria Matilda Ogilvie was born in Monymusk, Aberdeenshire, Scotland on 30th April 1864 to Reverend Alexander Ogilvie LL.D, headmaster of the Robert Gordon’s Hospital (later Robert Gordon’s College) in Aberdeen and his wife, Maria Matilda Nicol.
At the age of nine Maria, or May as she was known, was sent to one of the guild boarding schools – the Merchant Company Schools, Ladies College, Edinburgh – where she stayed for nine years and became both head girl and the best academic pupil in the school.
At 18 years she went to London to the Royal Academy of Music, becoming a promising pianist. Within a year she had decided against this in favour of a science degree. She later went on to study at Heriot-Watt College in Edinburgh returning to University College in London, from where she graduated in 1890 as a Bachelor of Science specializing in geology, botany and zoology.
Maria’s research work began in earnest the following year, 1891, in Munich University, her first choice the University of Berlin having refused to admit a woman. Under Karl von Zittel, a palaeontologist, she worked on the geology of the isolated mountainous Schluderbach and Cortina d’Ampezzo areas where initially there were no proper roads or inns. The terrain was difficult so she learnt to climb. Her research mainly on the structure and fossils of this area of the Dolomites and South Tyrol led to substantial articles, many in German. But it was after submission of a paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society on “Contributions to the Geology of the Wengen and St. Cassian Strata in Southern Tyrol” in the high mountainous area between Italy and Austria in 1893 that she received her Doctor of Science from London University for a thesis with the same name. Her Doctor of Science degree, was the first in geology to be given to a woman.
Maria corresponded with Sir Archibald Geikie, William Topley and Charles Lapworth and later with other fellow Scots, Drs. Benjamin Peach and John Horne. She also gave a new interpretation of the tectonic structure of the Alps by showing that the east and west anticlines and overfolds had been cut by east and west thrust planes which had been moved north in the central Alps. This led her to believe that there were two phases of folding and structural deformation. It is to her credit that she worked out the thrust movements entirely on her own. Her reward for this research was the first Ph.D awarded to a woman from Munich University in 1900. By the turn of the twentieth century, Maria Ogilvie Gordon had published 19 scientific articles and was the most prolific female geologist of the nineteenth century. She was described by her biographer as being “probably the most productive woman field geologist of any country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries”. Maria published more than 30 scientific papers during her lifetime and her 1927 book became the leading reference text for future work in the Tyrol Dolomites. Her translation of Karl von Zittel’s book A History of Geology and Palaeontology in 1901 was seen as a great contribution to the field. The Geological Society of London recognised her outstanding work by awarding her its Lyell medal in 1932.
Maria married John Gordon, a physician from Aberdeen, in 1895 and they raised three children together. Family life did not stand in Maria’s way and she carried on with her unpaid fieldwork. It was after her husband’s death in 1919 that Maria moved to London and became active in the Liberal Party. She was the first woman to chair a London borough court and was heavily involved in several leading women’s action groups. She served as honorary president of both the Associated Women’s Friendly Society and the National Women’s Citizens Association and became president of the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland in 1916 (later vice-chair of the International Council of Women), and chair of the Mothercraft and Child Welfare Exhibitions Committee in 1919. She played a strong part in the negotiations following the First World War at the Council for the Representation of Women in the League of Nations. For all this work she was awarded her D.B.E. from King George V.
The honour rewarded the sacrifices she had made in giving up her career as a scientist. Maria fondly remembered her time working in the field saying “the work was a joy and I look back on the days of expecting discovery at every corner as my happiest time”. Dame Maria died at her home in Regent’s Park, London, on 24 June 1939. Her ashes were placed in Allenvale cemetery in Aberdeen.
Derived from text provided by Professor Cynthia Burek