Celebrating International Women’s Day through the Life of Geologist Carlotta Maury


Carlotta Maury (1874-1938)

In order for us to analyze the present situation for women in science, we need to reflect on their role in the past. Just as is the case in the science of geology at large, “the past is the key to the present.” However geology has lagged behind her sister sciences in exploring the past contributions made by (and difficulties encountered by) women in its ranks. A woman geologist and paleontologist deserving of serious study is Carlotta Joaquina Maury (1874 -1938), a native of the small village of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York and the younger sister of Harvard astronomer Antonia Caetana de Paiva Pereira Maury (1866 – 1952). A Ph.D. graduate of Cornell University, Carlotta studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and taught for several years at Columbia and Barnard Colleges and at a women’s college at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. She investigated microfossils in drilling samples along the Texas and Louisiana coasts and was given an official title as a paleontologist for the Louisiana Geological Survey. In 1910 Carlotta was recruited to be the paleontologist for oil geologist A.C. Veatch’s year-long geological expedition to Venezuela, a study funded by the General Asphalt Company of Philadelphia. Her detailed scientific analysis of the fossilized flora and fauna of Trinidad was published as volume 64 of the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Carlotta defied the conventional wisdom concerning women and field work and in 1916 led an expedition to the Dominican Republic, during a period of violent political upheaval on the island. She identified hundreds of new species of fossils and revised estimates for the geological age of rock structures on the island. From 1919 through her death, Carlotta continued to analyze the fossils and field notes she had collected and to publish in scientific journals. She also consulted for Royal Dutch Shell’s Venezuelan Division and the Brazilian government, for whom she produced a number of proprietary technical reports.

Antonia and Carlotta Maury were the oldest and youngest children respectively of Episcopalian minister Mytton Maury and Virginia Draper Maury. Their brother, John William Draper Maury, later dropped his last name and went by his mother’s maiden name. He was a successful abdominal surgeon and researcher who ironically died at age 59 from complications after gallstone surgery. The Maury family (based in New York State) was steeped in science and rich in scientists. Reverend Maury was the editor of Maury’s Geographical Series from 1875-95, and his father-in-law, John William Draper, was a physician and pioneering astrophotographer, who made the first photographs of the moon and of the spectrum of the sun. Mytton’s brother-in-laws were physician and amateur astronomer Henry Draper, who obtained the first photographs of a star’s spectrum and the Orion Nebula (he and his wife, Anna Palmer Draper, a Connecticut socialite, were in the process of collecting photographs of stellar spectra in order to classify stars when he died of pneumonia in 1882); John Christopher Draper, Professor of Chemistry at New York University; and Daniel Draper, a meteorologist who founded the Central Park Meteorological Observatory. Mytton’s second cousin was Matthew Fontaine Maury, whose Physical Geography of the Sea (1855) is considered the first definitive text on oceanography.

Antonia and Carlotta were introduced to the natural world through both their father and uncles, and received a quality home education which included Latin, French, German, math and various sciences. Their father was a man of known fiery temper, and not only changed ministries every few years, but was also involved in a number of lawsuits, including one case in which he sued a bishop to protest his removal from one position “without cause.” Antonia earned a BA at Vassar College in 1887, where she studied astronomy under Maria Mitchell, the first woman American astronomer. Her uncle Henry’s untimely death proved fortuitous for Antonia, as Anna Draper donated sizable funds to the Harvard College Observatory’s Director E. C. Pickering to continue Henry’s work on stellar classification. Pickering hired dozens of women to do the grunt work of examining the photographic plates and sorting the stellar spectra. One of the more reluctant computers was Antonia Maury, who was hired in 1888 after her father wrote to Pickering inquiring for a position for his daughter. However, Anna Draper was no champion for her elder niece. In a letter to Pickering, Anna Draper complained that her niece was “not a valuable member of the corps… I shall be happy when you are rid of the annoyance” (Boyd and Jones 1971, 398). Antonia developed a system of classifying stellar spectra which included both the strength and width of the spectral lines, a system which was rejected by Pickering but which later proved central to the discovery that stars of the same surface temperature are found in different sizes, depending on the current stage of their evolution. Antonia left Harvard in 1892 and taught high school but returned after Pickering’s death and enjoyed some success analyzing the spectrum and light curve of the enigmatic variable star Beta Lyrae under the next director, Harlow Shapley.

Carlotta Maury’s story has been far less widely analyzed, but her life and career in many ways both mirror and stand in opposition to her older sister’s decades of disappointment. Their mother died when Carlotta was only 11, which must have had a significant effect on her. Mytton’s request to the Harvard College Observatory for work for his eldest daughter coincided with his son’s acceptance to Harvard, and the entire family subsequently moved to the Boston area. After completing high school in Waltham, Carlotta attended the new Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women (the Harvard Annex school which eventually became Radcliffe College) from 1892-4 and then transferred to Cornell, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1896, and her father took courses in biology. Like her sister, science was her focus, but she appears to be the first in her family to become interested in geology and paleontology. She entered the Ph.D. program at Cornell University, working under Gilbert Harris. She majored in conchology with minors in paleontology and the history of philosophy,. Under the aegis of the Schuyler Fellowship in Geology she studied at Columbia University and the Sorbonne in Paris from 1898-1900 and conducted field work in Europe. She received her Ph.D. from Cornell in 1902 with a thesis published as the “Comparison of the Oligocene of Western Europe and the Southern United States.”

Following her Ph.D., she, like other women in science, found it difficult to obtain a permanent academic position. She taught at various high schools in New York City and edited geography books before working as a Research Assistant in the Department of Paleontology at Columbia University from 1904-06. She taught courses with Amadeus Grabau and aided him in research projects. In 1906 Gilbert Harris recruited her to join his team (which included oil geologist Arthur Veatch) investigating microfossils in drilling samples along the Texas and Louisiana coasts. She is said to have been the first woman to be officially employed by a state (Louisiana) geological survey. The geological structure map which Maury and Harris assembled is still considered (with minor corrections) to be the seminal work on the geology of this region (Creese 2007, 43). She afterwards spent several years as a lecturer in geology at Columbia University and Barnard College (the women’s college associated with Columbia), taking time off in 1910 after she was recruited to be the paleontologist for Arthur Veatch’s year-long geological expedition to Venezuela, a study funded by the General Asphalt Company of Philadelphia. Her detailed scientific analysis of the fossilized flora and fauna of Trinidad  – “A Contribution to the Paleontology of Trinidad” – was published as volume 64 of the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Carlotta took a position as Professor of Geology and Zoology at the Huguenot College for Woman at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa from 1912-15. Upon returning to the U.S., Maury was given the Sarah Berliner Fellowship by Columbia and led her own geological field expedition to the Dominican Republic in 1916. For a woman to actively engage in geological field work, let alone lead such an expedition, was highly unusual in the early 20th century.  As a result of her field work, Maury identified hundreds of new species of fossils and revised estimates for the geological age of rock structures (Nehm and Budd 2008, 4). Maury’s success in this endeavor is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was carried out during a period of violent political upheaval on the island, which was for a time invaded by U.S. Marines (Creese 2007, 43). The resulting paper, “Santo Domingo Type Sections and Fossils” (Bulletin of American Paleontology, no. 29 and 30, 1917) is still considered to be the standard reference on fossil mollusk species in the Caribbean (Nehm and Budd 2008, 4).  The interdisciplinary Dominican Republic Project at the City University of New York currently sponsors and funds geological research projects involving U.S. and  Dominican scientists and students; their website features a page on Maury’s pioneering work in this field (http://www.dominicanrepublicproject.org).

In 1910 Carlotta began a nearly three-decade-long professional association with the Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum Company, Venezuela Division, and for much of the same period served as a paleontologist for the Geological and Mineralogical Survey of Brazil. Both consulting projects led to numerous scientific papers as well as proprietary reports, a subset of both of which were written in Portuguese. While her consulting work brought her both professional and personal satisfaction, she was never able to achieve the same success in her work with American institutions. She never received a permanent academic position, but instead worked on and off as an Associate Curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. She also continued her collaboration with Gilbert Harris on research involving Cornell University’s fossil collections. In a detailed two-part paper in Earth Sciences History, Lois Arnold documents the increasing strain in their relationship as they became rivals in consulting work for the oil companies.  Harris corresponded with Shell representatives behind her back and demanded that he receive duplicates to the fossils she received, leading to problems not only between Harris and Maury, but difficulties between Maury and her employers. Maury left Cornell in early 1926.

Maury devoted the last decade of her life to publishing her consulting reports, working out of her apartment in Yonkers and continuing her relationship with the American Museum of Natural History. Her publication list includes 44 scientific works plus an additional 16 confidential reports for the Royal Shell Petroleum Company. As early as 1930 she was stricken with cancer, but continued to publish until the year before her death in 1938. Her lifetime honors include election as a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Geographical Society, and Corresponding Member of the Philadelphia Academy of Science,  and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. Correspondence in the Hastings Historical Society shows that she was close to her brother John until his death, but there does not appear to be correspondence between her and Antonia. The nature of their relationship is heretofore unexplored by scholars.  Neither Antonia nor Carlotta married. John and his wife Alice Pray had three children, Henry, John, and Thayer.

In the lives and careers of Carlotta and Antonia Maury we see two sisters trained in two different sciences, enjoying varying degrees of struggles and successes. What can we make of the very different experiences these two talented women had in their respective scientific fields? Among the possible explanations might be the fact that American Ph.D. programs simply were not open to women in astronomy until the late 1890s. Was it a matter of Antonia graduating college just a few years too early, while her younger sister had more educational opportunities open to her? What role did their brother, John, their uncles (especially Dan, with whom both corresponded), and their father play in their life decisions? Neither Antonia nor Carlotta were able to secure a permanent academic position, but Carlotta was a successful consultant and had access to several academic collections which facilitated her scientific work. Antonia’s access to the Harvard plates depended on her strained relationship with Harvard, and in her later years she had to travel once a year from Hastings to Boston to continue her research.

But there are other, more stereotypical, explanations as well which cannot be discounted. Antonia was the eldest child, and after her mother’s death, took on the responsibility of securing and setting up housing when her father moved the family to Waltham, Massachusetts. Anna Draper’s dislike for her elder niece has been documented, but what of her thoughts about her younger niece? These remain unpublished. While Antonia was a meticulous observer, she failed to fit in with Pickering’s production-line vision for Haravard’s research output, as opposed to Carlotta’s “reputation for being extremely efficient and energetic; if she accepted an assignment she proceeded with speed and precision” (Creese 2007, 43). Antonia is called “dour” (Dobson and Bracher 1992, 110), “sensitive” and a “rejected sort of person” (Mack 1977, 73), while Carlotta “was known to have a sparkling personality” and “to sprinkle her prolific writings with humor and poetic charm” (Reeds 1939,160). Antonia “was pure intellect” and not interested in “light talk” (Hoffleit 2002, 30), while her younger sister is depicted as a “vivacious, outgoing woman” (Ogilvie 1986, 131) who “delighted in the exotic” and led a “cosmopolitan lifestyle” (Creese 2007, 43). The sisters’ complex relationships  with their respective male mentors, Gilbert Harris and E.C. Pickering, must also be taken into account.  For example, Antonia once complained to colleague Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin “I always wanted to learn the calculus, but Professor Pickering didn’t wish it” (Mack 1977, 89).

Even Dorrit Hoffleit, who knew Antonia and had great affection for her, admitted that she “was not interested in personal appearance” (2002, 30) and was often seen with her heels worn through her worsted stockings (Larsen 2009, 68). In her autobiography, Hoffleit recounted how, when she was in the hospital, her mother had been visited by Antonia Maury and another Harvard colleague, and Maury sat on her own recently purchased butter for an entire hour without realizing it (Hoffleit 2002, 30). Harvard colleague Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (herself often accused of being decidedly unfeminine) put it succinctly: “She was very homely; that was one of her drawbacks, I suppose” (Mack 1977, 74). Therefore it is as Burek and Higgs (2007, 1) explain – in order for us to analyze the present situation for women in science, we need to reconstruct what has happened to them in the past.

— Kristine Larsen [Based on “Struggles and Successes in the Geological Career of Carlotta Joaquina Maury.” Poster presentation, Geological Society of American Northeastern/North-Central Joint Meeting, Pittsburgh, PA, March 22, 2011]

Arnold, L. B. (2010). “The Education and Career of Carlotta J. Maury.” Earth Sciences History 29:52-68; 219-44.

Burek, C.V. and B. Higgs, eds. (2007) The Role of Women in the History of Geology (London: Geological Society).

Creese, M.R.S. (2007) “Fossil Hunters, a Cave Explorer and a Rock Analyst; Notes on Some Early Women Contributors to Geology.” In Burek, C.V. and B. Higgs, eds. The Role of Women in the History of Geology (London: Geological Society), 39-49.

Dobson, A. K. and K. Bracher (1992) “A Historical Introduction to Women in Astronomy,” Mercury 21: 4-15.

Hoffleit, D. (2002) Misfortunes as Blessings in Disguise (Cambridge: AAVSO).

Jones, B. Z. and L. G. Boyd (1971) The Harvard College Observatory: The First Four Directorships, 1839-1919 (Cambridge: Belknap Press).

Larsen, K. (2009) “An Interview with Dorrit Hoffleit. JAAVSO 37: 52-69.

Mack, P. E. (1977) “Women in Astronomy in the United States 1875-1920.” B.A. Thesis, Harvard University.

Maury, C.J. (1902) “A Comparison of the Oligocene of Western Europe and the Southern United States.” Bulletin of American Paleontology no. 15.

Maury, C.J. (1917) “Santo Domingo Type Sections and Fossils Part 1 and 2.” Bulletin of American Paleontology, 29: 1-244; 30: 1-43.

Maury, C. J.(1912) A Contribution to the Paleontology of Trinidad (Philadelphia: Academy of Natural Sciences).

Maury, C. J.(1931) “Fossil Invertebrata from Northeastern Brazil.” Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 67: 123-79.

Nehm, R. H., and A. F. Budd (2008) “Paleobiological Research in the Cibao Valley of the Northern Dominican Republic.” In Evolutionary Stasis and Change in the Dominican Republic Neogene, eds. R.H. Rehm and A.F. Budd (London: Springer), 1-19.

Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey (1986) Women in Science, Antiquity through the 19th Century (Cambridge: MIT Press).

Reeds, C.A. (1939) “Memorial to Carlotta Joaquina Maury.” Proceedings of the Geological Society of America, 157-68.



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