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Department of Earth Sciences


Two women have been particularly influential in promoting the participation of women in geology within the University of Cambridge – Mary McKenny Hughes and Gertrude Lilian Elles.

Mary McKenny Hughes (1860-1916)

Photographs of Mary McKinny Hughes, by kind permission of the Sedgwick Club Archive

Mary McKenny Hughes facilitates field work to the Malverns in 1892 for the first generation of Cambridge trained women geologists, which included Gertrude Elles and Ethel Wood. (Mary is seen to the left and behind her husband; ‘Gertie’ Elles is standing on the left and Ethel Wood reclines in the left foreground). Ref: Sedgwick Club Archive, SGWC 4/1. On the same trip: Mary with husband and son. Ref: Sedgwick Club Archive, SGWC 4/1. Photographs taken by by William Harland Banks (1867-1930)

Mary Caroline Weston was just 22 years old when she married the 51 year old Thomas McKenny Hughes, Woodwardian professor of Geology in the University of Cambridge. Despite her youth or perhaps because of it Mary became actively involved in Cambridge geology. Her presence on field trips facilitated other female participation, especially by undergraduates from the Newnham College, which was founded only a decade or so previously (1871). Of all the young women who benefitted, one of the best known was Gertrude Lilian Elles (1872-1960), who became the first female academic in the Department of geology and the first female reader in the university.

However, Mary’s interest and knowledge of geology was much more than that of an interested spouse, she published her first academic paper in 1888 ‘On the Mollusca of the Pleistocene Gravels in the Neighbourhood of Cambridge’ published in the Geological Magazine (NS. Dec. III, vol. V, No. V, pp. 193-207). And, in 1909 her ‘Cambridgeshire’ volume of the renowned Cambridge County Geography series, was published, coauthored with her husband.

Mary Hughes also had three sons, one of whom was killed on active service during the First World War. She predeceased her husband by a year in 1916.

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Gertrude Lilian Elles (1872-1960)

Photographs of Gertrude Elles with kind permission of the Sedgwick Club Archive

Gertrude Elles pictured in Ledbury in 1913 with back row with (from l to r) W B R King, T C Nicholas and J M Wordie. Photograph by S. Shaw. Ref: Sedgwick Club Archive, SGWC 2/2/15. Gertrude Elles, 1893 Isle of Man. Ref: Sedgwick Club Archive, SGWC 2/2/11.

From 1891, when she first entered Newnham College, Gertrude Elles became a lifelong member of the geological community in the University of Cambridge rising from undergraduate, researcher, assistant demonstrator, the first female university lecturer in the Department of Geology (1926) and the first female reader in the University (1936) and vice-principal of Newnham from 1925-36.

Elles gained international acclaim for her research on fossil graptolites and particularly their geological distribution through Ordovician and Silurian marine strata. This allowed accurate global correlation and subdivision of the Lower Palaeozoic, work which was carried out by successive generations of Cambridge researchers, including a number of Elles’s female students.

During the First World War, Dr Elles was Red Cross commandant of a small Cambridge hospital for wounded combatants, for which work she was awarded the MBE in 1920. Her Newnham friend and research colleague on graptolites, Ethel Wood (1871-1946) also did war work with disabled soldiers, for which she was awarded the MBE in 1918 and DBE in 1920. Ethel Wood married another Cambridge graduate, the physicist Gilbert Arden Shakespear. Gertrude Elles remained unmarried.

Douglas Palmer
Sedgwick Museum