Historical photograph could be earliest of female geologist

Posted by ap507 at Mar 07, 2016 01:14 PM |
‘The Geologists’ may not show famous fossil collector Mary Anning, but research suggests it could depict another female geologist of the 19th century

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 7 March 2016

An image of ‘The Geologists’ is available to view here (Credit © National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library): http://www.scienceandsociety.co.uk/results.asp?image=10683904&itemw=4&itemf=0001&itemstep=1&itemx=107

An enigmatic photograph titled ‘The Geologists’ showing a lady and a gentleman in front of some rocks is believed to have been taken at Chudleigh in Devon around 1843 by the pioneer photographer William H. F. Talbot.

Recently it has been suggested that the photograph depicts Mary Anning, the famous fossil collector of Lyme Regis in Dorset, with Henry De La Beche of the Geological Survey.

However, new research from Dr Mike Taylor, Honorary Research Fellow with the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies and Research Associate, National Museums Scotland, and costume historian Sarah Levitt, Head of Leicester Arts and Museums, suggests that the photograph is unlikely to be of Anning – but could instead depict another woman engaged in geology from the 19th century. 

In order to assess the likelihood of ‘The Geologists’ being a genuine photo of Anning, the researchers reviewed it in the context of contemporary geology, costume and photography.

Taking photos was a slow process and photos were usually carefully posed rather than snapshots. The paper suggests that the photo could have feasibly been posed by people who weren’t geologists at all, given that they lack a geological hammer – a typical tool of the science.

In addition, the quality of the fashionable attire the woman in the photo wears – an expensive bonnet and Paisley shawl – does not match up with the likely dress of a poor working-class Lyme Regis fossil collector such as Mary Anning.

However, even if the photo is not of Anning, many women were interested in geology at the time, and Dr Taylor suggests it could depict any one of a number of contemporary female geologists.

“What is so interesting is that there were so many women interested in geology that Anning was only one of many candidates,” Dr Taylor said. “That is remarkable when one realises how miserably difficult it was to go out in the field in those ‘respectable’ Victorian clothes, especially for upper - and middle-class ladies.”

Ms Levitt explains that, “The Victorians would have been absolutely horrified if anyone of any respectability had not been ‘properly’ dressed, especially in mixed company. So, just because the people in the photo are in their fine clothes, that doesn't mean they weren't geologists - which seems very odd to us today!” 

Dr Taylor points out that: “The photo itself may be the earliest known photo of any West Country geological activity, and of a woman engaged in geology anywhere.”

While the photo may not be of Mary Anning, last year Dr Taylor was involved in research about a childhood memento that he concluded belonged to the famous fossil collector .

The paper ‘Mary Anning (1799-1847) and the photograph ‘The Geologists’ ascribed to William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877)’ is available here: http://repository.nms.ac.uk/1560/


Notes to editors:

For more information contact Dr Mike Taylor on mat22@leicester.ac.uk or Sarah Levitt on Sarah.Levitt@leicester.gov.uk

Share this page:

Older press releases

For press releases issued before 4 October 2010, please visit the old eBulletin site.

Get in touch

T: +44 (0)116 252 2160
E: press@le.ac.uk

The Press Office is open 9.00am-5.00pm, Monday to Friday.

For general enquiries about the University, contact the main switchboard on +44 (0)116 252 2522.