Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon and her research in the Dolomites

Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon
Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon

Scottish Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon (1864-1939), or May as she was called, was the oldest daughter of a pastoral family composed of eight children, five boys and three girls. Maria Ogilvie entered Merchant Company Schools’ Ladies College in Edinburgh at the age of nine. Already in these early years, she showed a profound interest in nature. During holidays she enjoyed exploring the landscape of the Scottish Highlands accompanied by her elder brother, the later geologist Sir Francis Ogilvie. Maria Ogilvie aspired to become a musician and at age of eighteen she went to London to study music, becoming a promising pianist. Already in the first year her interests shifted towards the natural world and she went 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 follow-up their studies in Germany, but in 1891, despite a recommendation even by famous geologist Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen (famous for describing the fossil reefs in the Dolomites), she was rejected at the University of Berlin – women were still not permitted to enroll for higher education in England and Germany. She went to Munich, where she was welcomed friendly by paleontologist Karl von Zittel (1839-1904) and zoologist Richard von Hertwig (1850-1927). However, she was not allowed to join male students. Sitting in a separate room she listened through the half-open doors to the lectures.

In July 1891, Richthofen invited her to join a five-week trip to the nearby Dolomites Mountains, visiting the Gröden-Valley. From the very first day, Maria Ogilvie was immensely impressed by the landscape and learned rock climbing to better explore the mountains. Richthofen introduced Maria Ogilvie to alpine geology and they visited the pastures of Stuores in the Gader-Valley. At the time Maria Ogilvie was studying modern corals to become a zoologist, but Richthofen, showing her the beautifully preserved fossil corals found here in outcrops of Triassic sediments, convinced her to try a geological career.

View of marl outcrops on the Stuores pastures.

Richthofen was over sixty years old and therefore he couldn’t provide much support in the field. In later years Maria Ogilvie remembers the challenge and danger of fieldwork, sometimes accompanied by a local rock climber named Josef Kostner:

» When I began my fieldwork, 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 fossil sites. In 1893 she published “Contributions to the geology of the Wengen and St. Cassian Strata in southern Tyrol”. In the paper she included detailed figures of the landscape, geological maps and stratigraphic charts of the Dolomites, establishing fossil marker horizons and describing the ecology of various fossil corals associations. She described 345 species from the today 1.400 known species of mollusks and corals of the local Wengen- and St. Cassian-Formations. This paper, a summary of her thesis “The geology of the Wengen and Saint Cassian Strata in southern Tyrol”, finally earned her some respect by the scientific community. In 1893 she became the first female doctor of science in the United Kingdom. The same year she returned into the Dolomites to continue with her geological and paleontological research. In 1894 she published the important “Coral in the Dolomites of South Tyrol.” Maria Ogilvie argued that the systematic classification of corals must be based on microscopic examination and characteristics, not as usually done at the time, on superficial similarities.

In 1895 she returned to Aberdeen, where she married a longstanding admirer. Dr. John Gordon respected and encouraged her passion for the Dolomites. He and their four children accompanied Maria Ogilvie on various excursions into the Dolomites. In 1900 she returned to Munich, becoming the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. She helped her old mentor, paleontologist von Zittel, to translate his extensive German research on the “Geschichte der Geologie und Palaeontologie” – “The History of Geology and Palaeontology.”

Maria Ogilvie continued her studies and continued to publish. In 1913 she was preparing another 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 her publisher, the finished maps, plates and manuscripts were lost in the general chaos. In 1922 she returned into the Dolomites, where she encountered the young paleontologist Julius Pia, who, during the war, had carried out research in the Dolomites. Together they explored the mountains, searching for fossils.

Geological map of Cortina d’Ampezzo, published by Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon in 1934.

Apart from scientific papers, Maria Matilda published also one of the first examples of geological guide books for the Dolomites. To honor her contributions in 2000 a new fossil fern genus, discovered in Triassic sediments, was named Gordonopteris lorigae.

References:

  • 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