Maria Gordon

Dame Maria Matilda Gordon DBE LLD (née Ogilvie; 30 April 1864 – 24 June 1939), sometimes known as May Ogilvie Gordon or May Gordon, was an eminent Scottish geologist, palaeontologist, and politician. She was the first woman to be awarded a Doctor of Science from University of London and the first woman to be awarded a PhD from the University of Munich.[2] She was also a supporter and campaigner for the rights and equality of children and women.

Dame May Ogilvie Gordon
Black and white portrait photograph of Dame Maria Gordon. She is looking into the camera.
Dame Maria Ogilvie Gordon
Maria Matilda Ogilvie

(1864-04-13)13 April 1864
Monymusk, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
Died24 June 1939(1939-06-24) (aged 75)
Resting placeAllenvale Cemetery, Aberdeen, Scotland[1]
Alma materHeriot Watt College, University College, London, University of Munich
Known forStudying the Dolomites and creating the theory of crust-torsion
Dr John Gordon
(m. 1895⁠–⁠1919)
AwardsLyell Medal (1932)
DBE (1935)
Honorary LLD from University of Edinburgh (1935)
Scientific career
Thesis (1900)

Early life and educationEdit

Ogilvie was born in Monymusk, Aberdeenshire in April 1864, making her the eldest daughter of eight children (five brothers and two sisters, one of who passed away in infanthood).[3][4] With her parents being Maria Matilda Nichol and Reverend Alexander Ogilvie LL.D..[3] Her family was overall very well educated and had good connections and friends in various schools and colleges due to her father becoming the headmaster of Robert Gordons College after being a teacher for eight years at the local school.[3][4][5][6] Thus, her and her siblings all experienced a profound education.[4] Her eldest brother, Francis Grant Ogilvie, was also a scientist and director of the London Science Museum.[5] In their younger years, Maria and Francis spent time climbing and hiking at their summer cabin in Deeside and in the Highlands.[3][7] From the experiences she had with her older brother, Gordon gained remarkable talents for observation with quick intuitive understandings and an inexhaustible enthusiasm for fieldwork. This is where their love for geology began.[3]

At the age of nine, she was sent away to a boarding school by her parents called the Merchant Company Edinburgh Ladies' College. She attended this school until she was eighteen and in those eight years, she became both head girl and the best academic pupil.[8] Maria's original dream prior to science was to become a professional pianist. She continued her music career by attending the Royal Academy of Music in London.[8] Even though she was good enough to work with academies orchestra, she decided to leave and began to enhance her scientific knowledge by getting a Bachelor of Science at Heriot-Watt College. Once completing her degree, she specialized in geology, botany and zoology, at University College London in 1890.[2][3][5][6]

In 1891, she traveled to Germany to continue her studies at Berlin University. She was refused admission as women were not admitted to higher education institutions at the time in Germany, this despite the efforts of several influential friends and colleagues, including geologist Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen.[5] After being denied, she accompanied von Richthofen and his wife to Munich where she studied with Karl von Zittel and Richard von Hertwig and carried out research. In July 1891, the Richthofens travelled to the Dolomites for five weeks, inviting Ogilvie to go with them.[5] When arriving in the Dolomites, Gordon was blown away by the landscape, and she was then introduced to alpine geology. At the time when she and the Richthofen's visited the nearby meadows of Stuores, Maria focused her studies on modern corals and planned to study zoology rather than geology. However, after observing the preserved fossil corals found in Stuores, Richthofen pushed her to focus on geology and map and study what she would find in this area near the Dolomites.[7] For two summers, Gordon, even through dangerous at times, climbed, hiked and studied multiple areas in the Dolomites which included suggestions from Richthofen such as the St. Cassian, Cortina d’Ampezzo and Schluderbach districts.[3][7] Gordon began to teach local collectors of the area to be more careful when describing, collecting and recording the fossils they had found.[7] From this, she began to expect full and definitive answers to geological questions being asked and was unwilling to postpone interpretations for the future.[3]

After many scientific expeditions, Maria had returned home from the Dolomites, when she then fell in love and married John Gordon in 1895. He was also in the scientific field as he worked as a physician. Unlike many husbands during this period, John admired his wife and encouraged her to continue on with her aspirations of geology and wanted to be a part of the journey. The couple and their four kids would continue to travel into the Dolomites to help Maria continue her studies.[7] Her love of geology transferred over into the lifestyle of their children as they named one of their daughters Coral.[7][9]


All of Maria Gordon's geological research was carried out in the South Tyrol, an area of the Italian Alps close to the border with Austria. This area of the Alps is part of the geologically-complex Dolomites. The Dolomites are a very distinct range of mountains, characterized by high, dramatic peaks, which were thought to have been formed from the remains of coral atolls in an ancient sea. Gordon challenged this idea with her theory of 'crust-torsion', the notion that the mountains had been formed by the pushing, twisting, and folding of the earth's crust. Through observation and measurement of the geological structures in the Dolomites, she was able to determine that there were two phases of folding and structural deformation, leading to a new interpretation of the tectonic structure of the Alps.[10]

In total, she wrote more than 30 papers based on her research and findings in this region, some of which are considered seminal works.[11] Her biographer described her as "probably the most productive woman field geologist of any country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries."[12] Throughout Maria’s many years of research, she was able to produce a 78-page article in February 1893 for the Geological Society’s Quarterly Journal. It was illustrated with many drawings and entitled Contributions to the geology of the Wengen and St. Cassian Strata in southern Tyrol. Being a single woman in this area she attracted attention, but she was ambitious and determined, as is shown in her perseverance to forward knowledge, even when she received no acknowledgement or recognition. This is something she highlighted in her reply to the President of the Geological Society years later, when she received her Lyell Medal (Ogilvie Gordon 1932), and once she had set her mind on something; nothing and nobody could distract her. The fact that she carried on her research in later years as a married woman showed the determination she had. Throughout all her years she was very successful with her work, taking only a year to discover sites that allowed her to draw conclusions on development about corals, sponges, and other marine life which took place 230 million years ago. In 1893, she was awarded the Doctor of Science in Geology from the University of London, becoming the first woman to receive this degree. In 1900, she and Agnes Kelly became the first women to be awarded a PhD from the University of Munich, receiving a distinction in the fields of geology, paleontology, and zoology.[13][14] In October of the same year, Gordon published her new theory on 'crust-torsion' in the Royal Geographical Society entitled The origin of land-forms through crust-torsion, that then challenged the way people saw how the Dolomites were formed, and eventually this theory was accepted by the scientific community.[8][15]

By the year 1913, Maria Gordon had written many geological surveys, analyses, and sample collections about the Dolomites, until she finally had enough to publish a general explanation and study of the geomorphological processes that had led to their mountainous creation. Maria had written hundreds of pages worth of research that she intended to have translated and published in German, and this research also included a very detailed geological map that she had coloured by hand. With this significant amount of work done, she sent all of her work to the head of the Paleontological Institute of the University of Munich at the time, August Rothpletz. Rothpletz had previously looked down on her work and capabilities because of the fact she was a woman, but eventually confirmed much of her research and became a very close friend of hers. Once he had Maria’s collected work, she sent it on to a student who could successfully translate it from English to German. Progress was going along well, and the first few of Gordon’s maps had been drawn on lithographic stone and were set to begin the printing process when World War I began in 1914. Due to the social and political conflicts between Germany and England at the time, the progress on Maria’s research stopped, and as she busied herself with helping the war efforts in Britain there was no time for more geological work. To add to Maria’s disappointment over her still in-progress publication, in 1918 August Rothpletz died. This meant that after the war there was no trace of her manuscript or the name of the student who was in the midst of translating it. This devastated Maria as not only did she lose her colleague and friend, but she had also lost years' worth of research and hard work.[2]

However, Maria was determined. In 1922, she returned back to the Dolomites to compare the now Italian landscape to the few remaining records and notes she had to attempt to reconstruct her research.[2] Between herself and paleontologist Julius Pia, they continued to explore the Dolomites up until 1925.[7] Finally, in 1927, Gordon was able to publish her major scientific work by the Geographical Survey of Austria institute, entitled The Gröden, Fassa and Enneberg areas in the South Tyrolean Dolomites and subtitled Geological Descriptions with emphasis on overthrust fault phenomena. After her major publication of the approximately 400-page treatise, in 1928, she wrote two geological guidebooks for tourists and amateurs about the Dolomites, with the goal of increasing tourism in the region. Therefore, Maria is seen as one of the first people to acknowledge the importance of geotourism with her geological conclusions becoming common knowledge. Regardless of her contributions, as a woman, Maria Gordon and her work were not recognized or appreciated until later in her career, and as many letters to her geologist colleague and friend Julius Pia state, she felt for a long time that her work didn’t count at all to other geologists.[2]


May Ogilvie Gordon

She was active in politics as a Liberal and an advocate of women's and children's rights. Gordon was apart of an article that discussed the environments of children in the early 1900s. She advocated that children, and especially young girls, should be in the classroom rather than in the workforce. Maria Gordon protested against the state, maintaining that students should not be pulled out of school so young as they still have so much to learn. Fighting for the extension of schooling passed the age of fourteen, Gordon believed that young girls had the potential to achieve more than just voluntary jobs such as homemakers. She also advocated for the same lectures to be taught to all since at the time boys and girls were learning different curriculums based on the former norms of society.[16] On February 8, 1922 she was selected as prospective parliamentary candidate for David Lloyd George supporting National Liberals at the Canterbury constituency.[17] A General Election was called for November 1922 but on November 3, she withdrew. Following Liberal re-union between Lloyd George and H. H. Asquith she contested the 1923 General Election as Liberal candidate for the Unionist seat of Hastings, pushing the Labour candidate into third place;

1923 General Election: Hastings [18] Electorate 29,662
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Unionist Lord Eustace Sutherland Campbell Percy 11,914 52.6
Liberal Mrs Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon 5,876 25.9 n/a
Labour W. Richard Davies 4,859 21.5
Majority 6,038 26.7
Turnout 76.4
Unionist hold Swing

As an advocate of women's rights, she served as Vice President of the International Council of Women, Honorary President of the Associated Women's Friendly Society and the National Women's Citizens Association, and also as President of the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland.[19] She played an important part in the post-World War 1 negotiations at the Council for the Representation of Women in the League of Nations.[20]

Honours and awardsEdit

Over the years, Maria Gordon earned numerous awards for her contributions to science specifically, geology. In 1890, Maria Gordon graduated from the University College of London with a gold medal in geology, zoology, and botany.[21] In 1893, she was the first female to receive a Doctor of Science (DSc) in Geology from the University of London. Following her Doctorate, in 1900, Maria Gordon and Agnes Kelly became the first women to receive a PhD from University of Munich.[7] They received distinctions in geology, paleontology, and zoology. In 1916, Maria was made President of the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland.[2] Then in 1919, Gordon helped form the Council of Representation of Woman in the League of Nations.[22] She played an active role in the World War one negotiations while apart of the council.[21] Within the same year, Maria Gordon was among the first group of women to be elected to the Geological Society of London. In the following year, she was the first JP and Chairman of the Marylebone Court of Justice. In 1922, Maria Gordon was selected as a prospective parliamentary candidate for the National Liberals in the Canterbury constituency. Unfortunately, she had to withdraw after an election was called.[21] In 1928, the University of Innsbruck awarded her a diploma of honorary membership.[3] In this same year, the Geological Survey of Austria nominated her as an honorary correspondent.[3] She became an honorary member of the Vienna Geological society and at the time she was the only female honorary member in 1931.[3] In 1932, she was awarded the Lyell Medal from the Geological Society of London. In 1935, she was awarded the honorary title of Dame of the British Empire(DBE), due to her contributions to the welfare of women.[22][23] In fact, a room at Maria Gordon's alma mater, in the University of Munich's library, is named in her honour as the Maria-Ogilvie-Gordon-Raum and it houses the map collection of the department of geology.[24] Individuals and societies in the recent past continue to honour Gordon and the work she did in Geology and politics. In 2000, a new fossilized fern genus was found in the Triassic layer of the Dolomites and named after Maria Gordon and Carmela Loriga Broglio in honour of both of their work in the Dolomites, called Gordonopteris lorigae.[2] In August 2021, a rover landed on Mars in their attempt to drill into the Gale Crater. Based on the images from the Curiosity rover, NASA's laboratory named a cliff on the western wall of their passageway to the crater after Gordon, calling it the "Maria Gordon Notch." NASA wanted to acknowledge the work she did in her time in the Dolomites along with her other impactful work regarding geology.[25]


  1. ^ "Dame Maria Ogilvie Gordon, 1864–1939". Retrieved 7 December 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Wachtler, M. and Burek, C.V. 2007. Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon (1864–1939): a Scottish researcher in the Alps. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281(1), pp.305-317.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Creese, Mary (1 January 1996). "Maria Ogilvie Gordon (1864-1939)". Earth Sciences History. 15 (1): 68–75. doi:10.17704/eshi.15.1.u422363m32632kg8. ISSN 0736-623X.
  4. ^ a b c Bressan, David. "A women geoscientist in the Dolomites: Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon". Retrieved 9 December 2022.
  5. ^ a b c d e The role of women in the history of geology. Cynthia V. Burek, B. Higgs, Geological Society of London. London: Geological Society. 2007. ISBN 978-1-86239-227-4. OCLC 156812773.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  6. ^ a b A historical dictionary of British women (Revised ed.). London: Europa Publications. 2003. ISBN 0-203-40390-8. OCLC 62241832.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Bressan, David. "Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon: Pioneer Geologist of the Dolomites". Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved 29 September 2022.
  8. ^ a b c "Maria Ogilvie Gordon | Geologist | Minerva Scientifica". Retrieved 29 September 2022.
  9. ^ "In my own country I never count at all. I am made to feel a complete outsider: Maria Ogilvie-Gordon pioneering geologist". Lenathehyena's Blog. 3 October 2021. Retrieved 29 September 2022.
  10. ^ Ogilvie Gordon, M. M. 1927. Das Grödener, Fassa und Ennerberggebiet in den Südtiroler Dolomiten, Geologische Beschreibung mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Ueberschiebungscheinungen. Abhandlungen der Geologischen Bundesanstalt Wien, Vol. 24, fasc. 1&2.
  11. ^ "Scottish Women Scientists". National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 4 March 2015.
  12. ^ "Dame Maria Ogilvie Gordon". Scottish Geology. Retrieved 4 March 2015.
  13. ^ Herklots, John (2015). "Agnes Murgoci (1875-1929)" (PDF). Ryde Social Heritage Group.
  14. ^ "Women Scientists". National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 4 March 2015.
  15. ^ Gordon, M. M. Ogilvie (1900). "The Origin of Land-Forms through Crust-Torsion". The Geographical Journal. 16 (4): 457–469. doi:10.2307/1774327. ISSN 0016-7398. JSTOR 1774327.
  16. ^ Mackenzie, W. Leslie; Dewar, Thomas; Gordon, Ogilvie; Galloway, A. Rudolf; Wallace, J. Sim (1914). "Discussion On The Duty Of The State Towards The Early Environment Of The Child". The British Medical Journal. 2 (2798): 321–328. ISSN 0007-1447. JSTOR 25310938.
  17. ^ Aberdeen Journal, 9 February 1922
  18. ^ FWS Craig, British Parliamentary Election Results 1918–1949; Political Reference Publications, Glasgow 1949
  19. ^ "Dame Ogilvie Gordon Obituary". The East Anglian Daily Times. 26 June 1939. p. 14.
  20. ^ Law, Cheryl (13 October 2000). Women. A Modern Political Dictionary. ISBN 9781860645020. Retrieved 4 March 2015.
  21. ^ a b c sarah (16 July 2019). "100 years of female Fellows: Maria Matilda Gordon". Geological Society of London blog. Retrieved 2 October 2022.
  22. ^ a b Burek, Cynthia V. (January 2009). "The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London". Geological Society, London, Special Publications. 317 (1): 373–407. Bibcode:2009GSLSP.317..373B. doi:10.1144/SP317.21. ISSN 0305-8719. S2CID 128719787.
  23. ^ "Maria Gordon". National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 2 October 2022.
  24. ^ "Lehrstuhl für Geologie - LMU München". (in German). Retrieved 29 November 2022.
  25. ^ Minitti, Michelle. "Sols 3224-3225: Introducing Maria Gordon". NASA Mars Exploration. Retrieved 8 December 2022.
Non-profit organization positions
Preceded by President of the National Union of Women Workers
Succeeded by