Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"No ordinary woman" - Lady Charlotte Murchison

A collection of posts on my companion blog Digging the Dust have been about some of the lesser-known men and women who took part in the 1860s Zambezi Expedition led by David Livingstone.

A major mover and shaker behind this Expedition was Sir Roderick Impey Murchison of the Royal Geographical Society (Livingstone dedicated his famous work Missionary Travels to Murchison) but it is interesting to discover that the major mover and shaker behind Sir Roderick was his wife.

Charlotte Hugonin was born in 1788 in Hampshire, daughter of General Francis Lewis Hugonin, just one in a long line of military men. She met and married Roderick Murchison in 1815 after he had retired from the Peninsular campaign (he was in The 95th Rifles now well-known via the “Sharpe” novels and films).

Initially her husband had no great ambition, was somewhat of a spendthrift and intent on indulging in the hunting, shooting and fishing lifestyle common to many retired army officers. Charlotte, however, had other ideas. Perhaps their lack of children meant that she could put all her energies into her passion for science, geology in particular.

The Light of Science (Mrs Murchison) dispelling the darkness which covered the world

But it took her almost ten years to curb her husband's idle ways and interest him in more intellectual pursuits. While travelling through Europe they became acquainted with Mary Somerville, the eminent science writer who remained a life-long friend. Together with another friend, chemist and inventor Humphry Davy (of Davy Lamp fame), Charlotte eventually persuaded her husband to take up studies in chemistry and geology. After that, there was no stopping him and together they became involved in fossil hunting and paleontology all around Britain and throughout Europe, in company with many of the other scientists and enthusiasts of the day. Charlotte drew the sketches to accompany her husband's written discoveries such as The Silurian System.

Corals from Geology Matters

Then in 1838, Charlotte came into a large family inheritance and their new house at fashionable 16 Belgrave Square was soon the focus of grand soirees featuring the most important politicians and scientists of the day. Charlotte was an accomplished hostess, but was often laid low with illness as a result of malaria contracted in Europe while on one of their early expeditions. She died in 1869 and was buried in the Brompton Cemetery. Her husband outlived her by another two years, by which time he had been lauded with honours and medals galore for his research and discoveries. Assorted land features around the world from Russia to Australia to Uganda carry his name and there is even a Murchison crater on the moon!

This blue plaque on Sir Roderick Murchison’s home at 21 Galgate, Barnard Castle, County Durham where he lived during his early self-indulgent fox-hunting days, shows many of the places around the world where he is celebrated. As too often was the practice in the Victorian age, the brilliant and accomplished power behind his throne, his wife Charlotte, has been side-lined and disregarded.

From the Blue Plaque trail

From the biographical entry for Charlotte in the Oxford Dictionary of Biography:
“It was she who introduced him [Sir Roderick] into the geological world, and it was her money and social position which helped him achieve such extraordinary prominence within it (he was knighted in 1846 and made baronet in 1866). She took an active part in the scientific pursuits which she had initiated, and her views are intimately connected with Roderick Murchison's work. Charlotte Murchison also played a role in making higher education accessible to women: in 1831 it was her wish to attend Lyell's [Charles Lyell] geological lectures at King's College that caused them to be opened to both sexes,”
 And here is an extract from her obituary in the Manchester Courier, 20 February, 1869
 “Lady Murchison was no ordinary woman, and the world of science owes her a deep debt of gratitude; for if her ladyship (then Mrs Murchison) had not - nearly half a century ago - weaned her husband’s powerful mind from the ordinary occupation of a retired Peninsular captain, and attracted his attention to the engaging purist of science, England might never have had occasion to be proud of the illustrious baronet, who has fought such a good for fight for geology and whose labours have caused English geological knowledge to be respected wherever civilisation and human industry have utilised the products of the quarry, the coal, or the gold field.”
There is no accessible formal portrait of Charlotte, although the National Portrait Gallery lists a photograph of her taken in 1860 but it has not been digitised.

This photograph taken in Bath in September 1864 during the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science shows the two most recognised and celebrated men of the day, both with umbrellas - David Livingstone with his familiar cap and in light-coloured clothing, Sir Roderick Murchison. Perhaps somewhere in the background or the blurred melee of top hats and bonnets at their feet is Charlotte.
From Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institution publication

Visit these websites for more about Charlotte and other early female geologists: