Remarkable female scientists – Isabella Gordon, Crustacea specialist | Library and Archives

Dr Isabella Gordon (1901-1988), Crustacea specialist at the Natural History Museum 1928-1966.

A few weeks ago Catherine Booth made an appointment to view material in our reading room for the first time. Catherine has recently retired as Science Curator at the National Library of Scotland and will now able to spend time researching what had became an interest while she was working – the lives and careers of forgotten Scottish female scientists.  One of these scientists, Isabella Gordon, drew her to visit the Library and Archives at the Natural History Museum. The following is Catherine’s guest blog.

Isabella Gordon was born on 18 May 1901 in Keith, in the north-east of Scotland, to a farm labourer and his wife.  The family had a low income, and it was only because she was awarded a bursary that Isabella was able to continue at school beyond the age of 14.  She obtained good results at school, and went to Aberdeen University in 1918, having to supplement her income by demonstrating practical zoology to junior students.  Following her graduation with a B.Sc. in 1922, she qualified as a teacher.  Teaching may have become her career, but the award of a research scholarship led to further study.  A paper she wrote during that period, The development of the calcareous test of Echinus miliaris, was later published in: Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society B, 214 (1926) pp. 259-312.  I was delighted to see the handwritten manuscript of this paper in the Museum Archives.

Isabella Gordon at the NHM PH/2/6/2/6
Isabella Gordon (1901-1988) Assistant Keeper, Crustacea, Natural History Museum, London (NHM Archives PH/2/6/2/6)

Her research was highly rated, and she was awarded a postgraduate scholarship at Imperial College, resulting in her completing a Ph.D in 1926.  A Commonwealth Fund Fellowship enabled her to travel and conduct further study at marine stations in different locations in the USA and Jamaica, following which Aberdeen University awarded her a D.Sc.

In 1928, Isabella took up a position of Assistant Keeper with responsibility for Crustacea at the British Museum (Natural History), where she remained for the rest of her career.  During that time she published a very large number of papers, often hand drawing the accompanying illustrations.  A comprehensive list of her publications is provided at the end of her obituary by L. B. Holthuis and R. W. Ingle in:  Crustaceana 56, no. 1 (1989) pp. 93-105.  She was also known for her attention to enquiries sent in to her at the Museum, which she would answer as fully as possible, often enclosing sketches.

Gordon, Isabella Field notes (DF_252_13_2)
Isabella Gordon’s ‘field notes on colour pattern, habits etc – Malacostraca 1947-1948’ (Museum Archives DF 252/13/2)

I witnessed her attention to detail when I saw in the NHM some of her own copies of published papers annotated with remarks such as: figure poor; shading much too heavy; the printer had to bungle my correction.  The present Crustacea specialist, Miranda Lowe, kindly helped me understand how Isabella would have used a microscope and camera lucida to prepare her illustrations.  She also showed me Isabella’s very own eyepiece graticule, a tiny glass disc to use with a microscope to measure specimens.

What made me most excited in the Museum Archives was to see Isabella’s field notes from her research visits to marine locations around the country.  They contain her own beautifully hand-painted coloured illustrations of crabs, lobsters, shrimps and other sea creatures.

Gordon, Isabella Sketches made at Millport (DF_252_13_3)
Isabella Gordon’s ‘Sketches made at Millport Sept 27th – Oct 9th 1948 Crustacea Malacostraca chiefly Decapoda’ (Museum Archives DF 252/13/3)

Isabella’s career often took her abroad, and she made contacts all over the world.  The highlight of her foreign contacts came in 1961, when she was invited to Japan to participate in the celebrations for Emperor Hirohito’s sixtieth birthday.  She gave lectures and had a long conversation with the Emperor, himself a keen amateur marine biologist.  She was made an honorary member of the Carcinological Society of Japan, and is still mentioned prominently on their website.  Her own sixtieth birthday fell very shortly after this visit.

Recognition in the UK came in 1963, when she was given an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Isabella retired in 1966, but continued to work, publishing her own papers and reviewing those of others until the 1980s.  In the last years of her life she lived with her nephew and his family in Carlisle where she died on 11 May 1988.

For more information about the Library and Archive collections and how to access them, please visit our website 

2 Replies to “Remarkable female scientists – Isabella Gordon, Crustacea specialist | Library and Archives”

  1. Dear Catherine
    I was very excited & pleased to find your blog piece this morning as I’m compiling my family tree with Bella Gordon as a relative. She was my grandmother’s cousin. Grandma Marion Griffiths'( nee Clayton) mother and Bella’s mother were sisters. I met Bella at her London home in 1982 when I was visiting from Australia. She showed me her published reference book with the gorgeous illustrations.
    Your article has brought to light more details of her life previously unknown to me.
    Grandma Marion was also very proud of her family’s educational achievements. I was the first in her immediate family to receive a degree. I was a history teacher.
    Bella’s achievements are all the more extraordinary because she was born illegitimately.
    I have corresponded with Keith Grammar School which has honoured her with a memorial.I’m sorry I didn’t stay in touch & have no knowledge of her contemporary family. I wrote to her nephew, a Dr Gordon in Carlisle but have had no reply.
    I often wonder if her mother, Margaret, ‘Maggie’, was the one to encourage her to stay in school? Do you know anything of her brothers John & James? They must have had children?
    Again thank you for your article. Bella was an incredible woman.
    Chris Griffiths

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