Blast From the Past

By Ingrid Birker
Courtesy of Marie Stopes International Australia.

Marie Stopes in her lab, circa 1904. (Photo courtesy of Marie Stopes International Australia)

In 1909—exactly one hundred years ago this year—a 30-year-old rising star in the field of geology named Marie Stopes was brought to the Redpath Museum as an expert to check on the paleobotanical work of the museum’s founder and McGill’s fourth principal, Sir William Dawson.

Stopes, blessed with strikingly good looks as well as impeccable academic credentials, had been hired by the Geological Survey of Canada to quell the controversy about the age of plant fossils discovered by Dawson at Fern Ledges in New Brunswick. Armed with a PhD from Munich and a DSc from University College London, the young University of Manchester lecturer in botany and author of Ancient Plants was perfect for the job.

At the Redpath Museum she examined the plant fossils collected by Dawson in the 1800s and made corrections regarding the geological age of the material. As shown in the photo of specimen 3339, Calamites radiatus, the sure and definitive quill pen of Stopes succinctly notes: “Not Devonian.”

Why was this correction so important?

With this little note, Stopes corrected the opinion of Dawson, the most respected paleobotanist in Canada. In 1861 he had declared that the abundant ferns, seed-ferns and sphenopsids from the Fern Ledges locality at Saint John were Devonian in age and among the oldest plants known at that time (about 360 million years). He reasoned that the associated insect, fish and amphibian trackways must be Devonian as well. The presence of insects and amphibians in Devonian rocks was particularly difficult for many paleontologists to accept because, previously, their oldest occurrence had been in the Late Carboniferous (about 295 million years ago).

The Geological Survey of Canada had remained aloof in this controversy but, when Survey geologists began to argue in public about the ages of Carboniferous and Devonian rocks in the Maritimes (including those from Fern Ledges), the Director could not tolerate the apparent scientific disharmony and brought in an independent scientist to mediate.

Stopes arrived in 1910, examined all collections of fossil plants, reviewed all previous work, and then proceeded to describe, illustrate and identify about 40 species of other fossil plants that she collected in Fern Ledges herself. In her classic memoir, published by the Geological Survey in 1914, she clarifies that the Fern Ledges flora is, without question, a standard Carboniferous flora very similar to Late Carboniferous floras from Cape Breton Island, Pennsylvania and England. The associated fishes, insects and amphibians are, of course, also Carboniferous.

Then the story gets interesting. While Stopes was in Canada she met and married Canadian geneticist Reginald Ruggles Gates. In 1914, their marriage was annulled and she then started in on her most famous publication: Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of the Sex Difficulties. Published in 1918, this book moved her firmly out of the field of fossil ferns and set the tone for her work as a sex educator.

More books on sex, marriage, and birth control followed, including A Letter to Working Mothers (1919), Radiant Motherhood (1920), and Enduring Passion (1928).  Along with her husband, Humphrey Verdan Roe, she established Britain’s first family planning clinic in London in 1921. Originally known as the “Mothers’ Clinic,” the “Marie Stopes International” now provides reproductive health services in over 30 countries. In 1999 the Guardian newspaper in England declared her a leader in their “Women of the Millennium” poll.

The McGill Libraries have most of Marie Stopes’ publications including the Journal, Birth Control News, which she edited from 1922 – 1944, her dissertation (1900) on the spontaneous combustion of coal, and her defining memo regarding the Canadian Carboniferous plants and animals, which is available at the Schulich Science and Engineering Library.

Ingrid Birker is Science Outreach Coordinator for the Faculty of Science.

2 Responses to “Blast From the Past”

  1. Luigi Fulk says:

    wow what a interesting post , its really helpful for us
    and i saw this post on google ill pop back to your site later tomorrow

  2. Freddie Vincent says:

    Marie Stopes was a great lady, versed in many disciplines of science.

    Her work on birth control will be remembered for centuries to come.

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