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Mary Buckland, nee Morland

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Mary Buckland, nee Morland



(see long history)

Mary Morland exemplifies the limited possibilities of a woman of her time to make a career in scientific research. She was born in Marcham in 1797, daughter of the Abingdon lawyer Benjamin Morland. George Bowes Morland, also a lawyer and one of the important figures in the development of Abingdon’s brewing industry, was a half-brother. Her mother died when she was a baby, and she seems to have been entrusted for part of her childhood to Sir Christopher Pegge, Regius Professor of Anatomy in Oxford, and his wife, who encouraged her early scientific interests.

Fossil collecting seems to have been regarded as an acceptable pursuit for a female; an older woman, Etheldred Bennett, had already attracted attention in that field. While still a teenager, Mary Morland corresponded with Georges Cuvier, then at the peak of his career as the effective founder of paleontology, the scientific study of fossilised early life. She sent him specimens and produced illustrations for him, and in or soon after 1817 he sent her a copy of his latest book Le Règne Animal (The Animal Kingdom) which was causing a stir in intellectual circles. The story goes that she was reading this on a coach journey, and got into conversation with a fellow passenger who was reading the same book. This was William Buckland (1784-1856), an Oxford clergyman who had turned geologist in the hope of reconciling the fossil record with the Biblical creation narrative. An intense collaboration soon started. In 1825, Buckland was given a Christ Church canonry – a highly lucrative sinecure –and they were married.

Married life will not have been dull. Buckland was an eccentric whose social behaviour was unpredictable, whose diet included beasts not usually regarded as edible – a dinner party based on crocodile was not a success –and whose sense of humour sometimes gave offence, but his lectures were immensely entertaining and attracted large audiences. He was liable to prance or stamp about the lecture room to demonstrate how extinct creatures might have walked.  On one night, he called his wife from her bed to the kitchen to make him a slab of dough, over which he caused a pet tortoise to walk so that he could compare its footprints with those of a long dead ancestor. Their house was chaotic with every surface including the floors abundantly littered with specimens and books, and very rarely dusted. They travelled widely to places of geological interest and to scientific conferences.

The role of a Victorian wife was difficult to combine with independent scientific work. Mary Buckland had nine children, of whom five survived to adulthood, and she took great care over their education. She was active in charitable work, and when staying at Islip where her husband, now Dean of Westminster, was also rector, taught geography at the local school. This was frowned on as giving the lower orders ideas above their station.

Nonetheless, she continued to be scientifically active, although now mainly as collaborator, curator of specimens, and amanuensis to her husband. She improved his prose style, drew the illustrations for his publications, and developed techniques to reassemble fossil fragments. Their greatest joint achievement was the lavishly illustrated treatise Geology and Mineralogy (1836) where the biblical interpretation of the fossil record was definitively abandoned. William Buckland’s name appeared as sole author, but it was recognised by others that much of his professional success was due to the collaboration of his wife.

In the 1840s, Buckland’s mental health began to fail, and after 1850 he was confined to an asylum. He died in 1856. Mary, now working with her daughter Caroline, had branched out into the microscopic study of marine zoophytes (simple animals that behave in some ways as plants). She died in 1857, possibly from the after-effects of a coach accident on one of their continental journeys long before.


© AAAHS and contributors 2015

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms

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