Field of Science

A women geoscientist in the Dolomites: Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon

The Scottish Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon (1864-1939), or May as she was known, was the oldest daughter of a pastoral family composed of eight children, five boys and three girls.
The parents had good connections and friends in various schools and colleges - all the surviving children (one died in infanthood) experienced a profound education. Maria entered Merchant
Company Schools' Ladies College in Edinburgh at age of 9. Already in these early years she showed a profound interest in nature, so during holidays she enjoyed to explore the landscape of the Highlands accompanied by her elder brother, the later geologist Sir Francis Ogilvie.
May aspired to become a musician and at age 18 she went to London to study music, becoming a promis
ing pianist, but already in the first year her interest to nature prevailed and she decided for a career in science.
Studying both in London and Edinburgh she obtained her degree in geology, botany and zoology in 1890. Maria Ogilvie hoped to follow-up their studies in Germany, but in 1891, despite efforts and friends, even by the famous geologist Baron Ferdinand Freiherr
von Richthofen (a pioneer geologist of the Dolomites), she was refused at the University of Berlin - as women were still not permitted to enrol for higher education in England and Germany. She went to Munich, where she was received friendly by eminent palaeontologist Karl von Zittel (1839-1904) and zoologist Richard von Hertwig (1850-1927), in contrast mineralogist Paul Heinrich von Groth (1843-1927) refused to allow the young women to enter his laboratory. Maria Ogilvie was not allowed to enrol in a regular course of studies even at Munich, research was done as private person and to listen to lectures she had to sit in a separate room with the doors half-open.

In July 1891 the couple von Richthofen invited her to join a 5-
week trip to the nearby Dolomites Mountains, visiting the Gröden-Valley.
From the first day Maria Ogilvie was immensely impressed by the landscape and soon she started an intense exploration of the area. She learned rock climbing and visited the Mecca of geology, the small village of Predazzo. Richthofen introduced Maria Ogilvie to alpine geology, and the travel party visited the meadows of Stuores in the Gader-Valley. At the time Maria Ogilvie had studied modern corals and was inclined to become a zoologist, but Richthofen, maybe also after showing her the beautiful preserved fossil corals of Stuores, advised her to become rather a geologist and to study and map this area.

Fig.2. View of outcrops of marls on the Stuores pasture.

Richthofen was over 60 and therefore he couldn't provide much support in the field, Maria Ogilvie remembers the challenge and danger of field work, sometimes accomp
anied by a local rock climber named Josef Kostner:

"When I began my field work, I was not under the eye of any Professor. There was no one to include me in his official round of visits among the young geologists in the field, and to subject my maps and sections to tough criticism on the ground. The lack of supervision at the outset was undoubtedly a serious handicap."
(Ogilvie Gordon 1932)

For two summers she hiked, climbed and studied various areas in the Dolomites and instructed local collectors to carefully record and describe their fossil sites.
In 1893 she published the results in an article titled "Contributions to the geology of the Wengen and St. Cassian Strata in southern Tyrol", where she, as gifted drawer, published not only detailed figures of the landscape of the Dolomites, but also important contributions to the, at the time still poorly know, stratigraphic record of the Dolomites, establishing marker horizons and describing the ecology of var
ious fossil corals associations. She alone described 345 species from the today 1.400 known species of molluscs and corals of the Wengen and St. Cassian Formations.
The published paper, extract of their thesis "The geology of the Wengen and Saint Cassian Strata in southern Tyrol", finally earned her respect by the scientific community, and more important: her DSc degree in 1893 from the University of London
(times finally had changed)- the first female DSc in the United Kingdom.

The same year she returned into the Dolomites to proceed with her geological and paleontological research and in 1894 she published her second important contribution, the "Coral in the Dolomites of south Tyrol." Therein Maria Ogilvie emphasized that the systematic of corals must be based on microscopic examination and characteristics, not as usual done at the time simply on superficial resemblance.

In 1895 she returned to Aberdeen, where she married a longstanding admirer, the physician Dr. John Gordon, husband who (unusual for the times) respected and encouraged her passion for the Dolomites. He and the four children accompanied Maria Ogilvie, despite the difficulties of travels, on various excursions into the Pale Mountains.

In 1900 she returned to Munich, becoming the first woman to obtain a PhD at the local University for her previous work in this city (also in Germany times changed). As thank to her old mentor, palaeontologist von Zittel, she translated his extensive German research on the "Geschichte der Geologie und Palaeontologie" into English as "The History of Geology and Palaeontology."

Maria Ogilvie continued her studies and continued to publish, mostly privately. In 1913 she was preparing an ulterior important work about the geology and geomorphology of the Dolomites, to be published in Germany, but in 1914 with the onset of World War I and the death of the publisher the finished maps, plates and manuscripts
were lost in the general chaos.
This was a hard setback, but like so many times before Ogilvie would not surrender. In 1922 she returned into the Dolomites, where she encountered the young palaeontologist Julius Pia, who, during the war, had carried out research in the Prags Dolomites. Both became friends, and in 1922 to 1925 they explored many times together the Dolomites.
She published copious volumes of the tectonic evolution of the Dolomites, and also books of geology for the interested layman, hoping to share her fascination of the Dolomites with others - one of the first examples of modern geological guide books for the region.

Fig.3. and 4. Landscape profile (and recent photography) of the Langkofel-massif after a drawing from GORDON & PIA (1939): "Zur Geologie der Langkofelgruppe in den Südtiroler Dolomiten."

Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon succeeded against all odds and unequal treatment of women to study geology and achieve important results in this field. Still today, mapping in the field, many observations of Maria can only be confirmed by modern geologists - also I based some of my field work on her heritage.

To remember her contributions in paleontology in 2000 a new fossil fern genus, discovered in Triassic sediments of the Dolomites, as named after Maria Gordon - Gordonopteris lorigae.


WACHTLER, M. & BUREK, C.V. (2007): Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon (1864-1939): a Scottish researcher in the Alps. In BUREK, C. V. & HIGGS, B. (eds): The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society: 305-317


  1. Hello David,
    fascinating woman! Thanks for posting.
    Do you happen to know where Maria Gordon lived in Aberdeen after her marriage in 1895?
    Andrea Schwedler,


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