Ida Lilian Slater (1881-1969) | International Women’s Day 2019

2019 marks the centenary of women being allowed to join the Geological Society of London (GSL). That women might not be permitted to join any learned society today is unimaginable, and we sometimes take for granted the rights women have in today’s society. But before 1919 women were not only barred from joining the GSL, but had to have their research papers read out at meetings by their male colleague.

This blog, by Consuelo Sendino, attempts to enhance the reputation of a singular woman whose work was sadly neglected until a recent publication (Sendino et al. 2018) sought to correct that injustice and recognise her achievements.

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Figure 1. Ida Slater in 1904. Photo taken at the Sedgwick Club.  (By permission of University of Cambridge, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. Reference: SGWC 04/2a/1904.)

Ida Lilian Slater (1881-1969) [Figure 1] was one of the first women to work as a palaeontologist in London. Her education started at Newnham College, Cambridge where she met and became friends with another female student, Helen Drew (1881-1927), and with whom she studied Geology from 1900 to 1904.

Ida was a very active student and joined the Sedgwick Club, becoming its Honorary Secretary in 1903. She was also thirsty for geological knowledge, and developed interests in geomorphology and stratigraphy before finally settling on palaeontology.

Unfortunately, in the early part of the twentieth century women were not permitted to graduate at Cambridge, and so Ida was forced to travel alone to Dublin to gain her degree. It was not normal at that time for women to be seen travelling unaccompanied, and that she did this, as well as undertaking other solo trips to visit colleagues abroad and do fieldwork with other female college colleagues, is a testament to her determination, fortitude and courage.  And we must remember that this was more than a decade before women had the vote in parliamentary elections.

Back in Cambridge, Henry Woods, then lecturer in palaeontology, encouraged Ida to study conulariids, a group of palaeoscyphozoans, and in particular their British species, which at the time had not been studied. She saw this as her opportunity to make her mark. She began visiting the British Museum (Natural History) where she became friends with Dr Arthur Smith Woodward, a former Keeper of the Geological Department of the British Museum.

Woodward asked her to prepare a monograph for the Palaeontographical Society on the British Conulariae. The manuscript was completed and published in 1907 (Slater, 1907). Whilst studying the British specimens, Ida had to travel abroad to compare types and arrange the loans of specimens from various institutions and private collectors. This is the exact same procedure that any researcher would follow today in order to identify specimens. She also applied for funding, and with the support of her friend Arthur Woodward, was awarded the Daniel Pidgeon Fund from the GSL. Her name began to stand out.

Ida’s skills were not just limited to taxonomic research, or even to geomorphology or stratigraphy. She was also a very skilful illustrator, and what’s more, an illustrator with great palaeontological knowledge. This gave her the opportunity to prepare a series of drawings celebrating the signing of the Entente Cordiale of 1904, and which were exhibited at the Franco-British Exhibition in London in 1908 [Figure 2]. This provided her with a much needed income and allowed her to pursue her research.

She collaborated with Gertrude Lilian Elles and E.M.R. Wood on the graptolite plates which appeared in Elles & Wood’s monograph of 1911. At the same time she was working as an educator/researcher at Bedford College, London, where she was a demonstrator in geology for another trailblazing female geologist, Catherine Raisin. This was her last proper work before marrying a South Kensington solicitor in 1912. His name was William Donald Lees (1879-1974).

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Figure 2. Original letter to Dr. Smith Woodward with transcription.                                                         (NHM Archives DF PAL/100/46/347.)

Although Ida’s scientific career was short, she made important contributions to our understanding and knowledge of the Early Palaeozoic of Wales and Scotland, and of course the taxonomy of conulariids (palaeoscyphozoans). This made her one of the few ‘fortunate’ women permitted to enter a world of geological research dominated by men.

The NHM Conulariid Collection on which Ida worked is considered the best in the world in terms of diversity, and second best in its number of specimens. Her work has been cited for over one hundred years and continues to be cited to this day by researchers on this group of fossils.

Ida Lilian Slater was indeed a woman very much ahead of her time.

Written by Consuelo Sendino, Curator of Bryozoa and Sponges (NHM London).

References:

Elles, G.L. & Wood, E.M.R. 1911. A Monograph of British Graptolites, Part 8. Monograph of the Palaeontographical Society, 359-414, pls 36-41.

Sendino, C. Ducker, E.  & Burek, C. 2018. Ida Slater, A Collection Researcher in a Male World at the Beginning of the 20th Century. Edited by Decker, J and guest editors: Sendino, C. Note, M. & Ashton, J. (eds), Women & Collections. Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals, 14, 439-453.

Slater, I.L. 1907. A monograph of British Conulariae. Monograph of the Palaeontographical Society. 40p., 5 pls.

One Reply to “Ida Lilian Slater (1881-1969) | International Women’s Day 2019”

  1. My knowledge of Paleontology and Geology extends to my son’s obsession with excavation and dinosaurs in his early childhood. Supporting his interest in these areas lead me to providing him with ample reading material which, I of course had to navigate as he learned.
    Further, having the privilege of being born in the era of choice and limitless information, I am that much more fascinated by all that Ida was able to accomplish in the era of her life. Being able to persist and succeed in the midst of ridicule and disrespect at the levels that she did should serve as inspiration for any woman, regardless of her field of endeavour.
    It is noteworthy that more than a century after Ida’s phenomenal exploits, women continue to struggle for equity and recognition. Simple issues like being remunerated equally for the same job, is a major challenge in even so-called first world countries. Access to certain courses of study is also still a part of our reality; as is the freedom to manage our sexual and reproductive health.
    It is satisfying that even though decades have passed the opportunity to celebrate all that she has achieved is being taken, as women all over the world celebrate an occasion that she was perhaps never able to; International Women’s Day … and Women’s Week.

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