Earlier this week I heard (probably somewhere on Twitter actually) someone say that as a child they suffered from Marie Curie syndrome, of which I was hugely concerned about, after all, we all know the ill fate of Curie, this syndrome must be serious! However, Marie Curie syndrome is in fact where the sufferer is only able to name one female scientist; Marie Curie. I am saddened to say, that I too was a sufferer as a child, but as an adult some of my favorite scientists are women. I have breifly mentioned the Paleontologist, Mary Anning before, HERE, and for today’s Find it Friday, we are going to venture in to the world of another lady of Science!
These minerals are a small part of our Geology collection here at the Curatorial Services and they all have one thing in common; they were collected by a Miss. Caroline Birley.
Caroline Birley was a local Geologist. She was born on Oxford Road, Manchester, November 16th 1851. From an early age she showed an interest in the field and started by collecting small rocks and stones that intrigued her. At the age of 12, in 1864, she became a subscriber to the Geological Magazine. Her grandmother paid for this subscription and as a whole her family was a wealthy one as they owned various cotton and rubber factories in the Manchester area. Notably, Caroline Birley was the niece of Hugh Birley, the first Conservative MP for Manchester in 1868 and Herbert Birley, who was chairman of the Manchester school board for many years. This wealthy background might have been what allowed Caroline to follow her passion.
By the age of 30 Caroline Birley had been an active Geologist for over 20 years, constantly collecting rock, mineral and fossil specimens for her private collection. In 1884 her collection became so large, as you can imagine, that she could no longer store it in her home and so, after moving to Seedley Terrace in Salford, she had to build a building in her garden with the sole purpose of holding her finds. In 1888 she named this building Seedley Museum and opened it to the public.
Despite this lack of space Caroline Birleys thirst for Geology was still unquenched and now she wanted to travel further afield. Between 1887 and 1905 she traveled abroad various times on Geological field trips accompanied by her friend Louisa Copland. These field trips included:
- January 1887 – Egypt
- June 1887 – Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy
- July 1888 – Faxe, Denmark
- May 1889 – Faeroe Islands
- May 1890 – Faeroe Islands
- July 1891 – Faxe, Denmark
- November 1891 – Malta
- November 1892 – Algiers, Algeria
- November 1893 – Corsica and Italy
- August 1897 – Canada and Colorado
- April 1899 – The Azores
- April 1902 – Boulogne, France
- July 1905 – Cape Town, South Africa
This alone shows Birley’s dedication and passion. Most of these places would have taken weeks, even months to travel to as there was no way to fly at this time. Unless, she flew by hot air balloon, of course.
On their trips, Birley and Copland made a few discoveries that would secure their legacy in the Geological world forever.
Whilst in Faxe in Denmark they collected a large amount of Late Cretaceous fossils. Dr. Henry Woodward of the Natural History Museum in London described Birley’s finds and named two new species of the genus Dromiopsis, D. birleyae and D. coplanda, after Birley and Copland. In naming Dromiopsis birleyae, Woodward said:
“I dedicate this species to my friend Miss Caroline Birley, who has given so much time and attention to the study of geology and palaeontology both at home and abroad, and whose private collection bears testimony to her devotion to science.”
It is quite remarkable that she was recognised in this way at this time. It has since been suggested that Birley is not a noted Geologist because of her collection, as it bares no great scientific significance but because of the respect she gained from her peers, as this was a male dominated field at the time.
In 1899, Birley had also discovered a new genus and species of crab in Kent. Woodward also described this and named it Mesodromilites birleyae.
Towards the end of her life Caroline Birley began to curate her collection, she began to name, label and order the specimens she had collected throughout her entire life. On the 15th of February 1907, after suffering from influenza, Caroline Birley had a heart attack and died in Pendleton, Lancashire, she was 55.
In accordance to a will Birley made out in 1895 most of her mineralogical and geological collection was bequest to the Natural History Museum, London. The items that they didn’t want or need were then offered to Manchester Museum. The remaining pieces of her collection were then divided out between local museums by her brother, Francis Birley, including museums in Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, Radcliffe and Warrington. And this is how some of that collection has ended up with us in Stockport.
Caroline Birley also requested that her specimens be labeled with ‘Ex Caroline Birley collection’ which makes them very easy to spot in the collection. She was a natural-born curator it would seem and I am sure this has been very useful to many people over the years, and for us it has meant that at a glance we are able to attribute them to her and estimate we have 25 to 30 pieces of her collection here.
It is a shame that Caroline Birley seems to have been forgotten (I studied Geology for 2 years at college and 4 at university and she never came up once) and her dedication and commitment to the science she loved is not acknowledged but her obituary, published in the Geological Magazine, speaks for itself:
“By the death of Miss Caroline Birley, a most ardent and enthusiastic student has been lost to the science of Geology, one who from her childhood to the end of her life never wavered in devotion to this her cherished pursuit, nor thought any fatigue or personal sacrifice too great in order to visit places of geological interest and obtain specimens for her beloved Museum.”