Eliza Catherine Jelly, a Pioneering Woman in Science

A guest blog by Larissa Welton and Leo Le Good

Jelly Collection of bryozoans

On March 8, International Women’s Day is observed around the world. Describing a future ‘free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination’, this year International Women’s Day encourages us all to #EmbraceEquity.

At the Natural History Museum, Larissa from the digitisation team and Leo from the Library were reminded of this year’s theme when we came across a handwritten manuscript of Eliza Catherine Jelly. A scientist of the late 19th century, Eliza, like many women of the age, has not received the nearly the level of recognition as her male peers.

Eliza specialised in the study of bryozoans (or Polyzoa, as they were referred to at the time). Bryozoans are tiny aquatic invertebrate animals that live in colonies. Their Calcium carbonate skeletons provide a record of how colonies invest in different functions. Their skeletons are sensitive to acidity in the water, which increases when more carbon dioxide is present, they are particularly useful for scientists studying the impacts of ocean acidification.

The ramifications of Eliza’s research are still being used and expanded upon today. In the current age of rapid technological innovation, Museum specimens like hers offer unrivalled access to time-series data that can be used to track individual species’ responses to climate stressors and can be used to model predictions for the future. Eliza’s extensive body of work is still impactful over 100 years after she died.

Jelly Specimens in the Natural History Museum

The Jelly collections contains samples from the UK and around the world.

Larissa first came across Eliza Catherine Jelly while working on a SYNTHESYS+ funded Virtual Access program called Bryozoa Identification Tool (BIT) For Quaternary and Recent Mediterranean and North Atlantic Bryozoans. This project is a collaboration with several other museums around Europe and aims to digitise all recent Bryozoan specimens at each museum and use the taxonomic and locality information on their labels to create a website to help researchers identify Bryozoans.

“In my work as a digitiser, I am lucky enough to get to go through the bryozoa collection specimen by specimen.  when I come across a specimen that was collected by a woman (an all too rare event) I google her and invariably find a fascinating history. After researching Eliza, I found out that the Museum’s Library and Archives held a manuscript written by Eliza, so I contacted my colleague Leo who works in the library to further investigate Eliza’s story.”

The specimens that we hold from Eliza at the Museum come from all over the world. The specimens collected from South Africa and Australia were most likely collected in the field by somebody else who sent them to Eliza for identification and mounting onto microscope slides. Eliza then periodically sent the specimens she prepared to museums and scientists in the bryozoan field around the UK, which is likely how they ended up here. One slide, however, was collected in Falmouth, where Eliza lived at the time of the 1881 census, so it seems likely she collected at least this one herself.

A Pioneering Bryozoan Researcher

Eliza Catherine Jelly was born in Bath on 28 September 1829. Her father, Harry, was a clergyman and naturalist interested in Palaeontology. Young Eliza developed an early interest in natural history though collecting fossils on beaches in Cornwall. The family had limited money so while Eliza had little formal education and no university degree, the Victorian ideal of self-education let her pursue her scientific interests.

Eliza grew up in an age where well-brought up women were encouraged to take up hobbies like embroidery and watercolour paintings but nothing resembling useful or gainful employment. Tinkering with microscopes examining tiny bryozoan specimens could have been seen as just ‘useless’ enough to be an acceptable interest and that may have been a contributing factor to her being drawn to the field.

She had a wide variety of interest in the natural sciences as shown in letters between her and the botanist Rev. Edward Adolphus Holmes which discuss specimens she collected and identified of moss, lichens and algae. A specimen she collected of the seaweed species Nitophyllium gmelini that she collected in Penzance in May 1880 is now housed at the Bolton Museum in Lancashire. Miss Jelly also published a scientific journal article on the land and freshwater molluscs of Bristol, where she lived for most of the time between 1861-70. However, by the 1870s she seems to have settled into her area of expertise: Bryozoans.

Eliza’s most important contribution to the field of Bryozoans was her book “Synonymic Catalogue of Recent Marine Bryozoa” which was published in 1890. In this volume she gathered all the known species names of bryozoan species and their synonyms, which a reviewer in Nature called “a work that all students of the Polyzoa should be grateful for”. Despite the importance of the work, she had to raise the money for publication herself. She got a grant from the Royal Society and received help from friends and colleagues who subscribed for copies to help make publication possible.

Eliza Jelly corresponded with most of the active researchers of the day who were working on Bryozoans, both fossil and recent. She was frequently sent specimens by other scientists on collecting field trips that she identified, prepared, mounted and labelled, and then distributed to museums and fellow researchers in the UK such as Arthur William Waters, Augustus Hamilton and Randolph Kirkpatrick.

Relationship with Edith Williams

Eliza Jelly never married. In the 1871 census she was first recorded as sharing a house with 3 other unmarried women including one Edith Williams. For the next 28 years Eliza and Edith lived together, moving from Croydon to Falmouth and then to Red Hill, where Edith was to die of breast cancer in 1899. Eliza was clearly a devoted caregiver and companion to Edith, and Edith left her entire estate of £2,276 to her “dear friend, Eliza Catherine Jelly”. When Eliza passed away in 1914, she chose to be buried in the same grave as Edith in Chart Lane cemetery, Reigate.

With such scant information surviving about the personal life of Eliza and Edith it’s impossible to say whether they were friends or in a romantic relationship, Larissa and Leo are members of the LGBTQIA+ community and we both resonated with this story of two women sharing a life together.

Manuscript spotlight

In 1897, at the age of 68 and shortly after retiring from Bryozoa research, Eliza gave a handwritten notebook to one Sidney Frederic Harmer. The book contains a wealth of her own drawings and notations, with meticulous descriptions of bryozoan species. Sidney would have been in his thirties at the time and went on to become Keeper of Zoology and then the Director of the Museum.

The specimens Eliza included in the manuscript are from various locations, from the Shetland Isles to Australia. Her records are neat and succinct and often reference other researchers who first described the species.

After learning about Larissa’s transcription project, Leo wanted to see if he could find an entry in Eliza’s manuscript that corresponded to any of her specimens held in the Museum’s bryozoa collection today. After a lot of squinting (and with the help of an extra pair of eyes!) reference to Membranipora imbellis (Hincks, 1860) was found. Although not accompanied by any drawings, Eliza’s commentary is revealing:

“I find myself unable to agree with him (Busk) in regarding M. imbellis as ‘an [un…] variety of M. flemingii. Its cells are much larger than those of the latter species, and more widely separated; & the numerous specimens wh. I have examined have been uniformly destitute of the calcareous [expansion], as well as of the spines & avicularia which distinguish M. flemingii.”

The two species Eliza is referring to are now known as Alderina imbellis (Hincks, 1860) and Amphiblestrum flemingii (Busk, 1854): this is an example of how her sharp eye and long experience allowed her to make corrections to another eminent scientist’s work.

Eliza’s note on Membranipora imbellis.

This commentary may have other significance to us. A specimen of A. imbellis is the only slide from Falmouth in Jelly’s collection that Larissa found during her project. Perhaps Jelly wrote this note whilst looking down a microscope at her own minute finding. This manuscript of Eliza Jelly’s has now been transferred to Special Collections, where it is being catalogued and conserved.

Inequitable world for Women in Science

Eliza faced discrimination for being a woman in science. Some letters were addressed to her assuming she was a man, while others questioned whether her work really came from a woman. Like many other women in the 19th century, Eliza’s life went generally unrecorded, with little information about her coming down to us compared to male scientists of similar calibre. At the time most scientific societies excluded women but she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society in 1887. Perhaps if she had been able to join other societies like the Royal Society or been allowed to publish more, she would be more remembered today.

While Eliza was a world expert in Bryozoan taxonomy and identification, as can be seen in letters where she describes minutiae of taxonomic differences between two species and points out when a specimen appears to be a new species unknown to science. However, instead of publishing descriptions of new species herself, she passed these unusual specimens on to other researchers for publication, possibly because of the difficulty she would have faced getting published as a female scientist.

Eliza was troubled with bad health and retired from her Bryozoan research at the age of 67. By the time she passed away aged 85 in a nursing home in Red Hill in 1914, she had outlived many of her colleagues that might have known her well enough to write an obituary. However, she has been recognised for her work by others in the field who have named the genus Jellyella and five species after her: Euthyroides jellyae, Truncatula jellyae, Multiclausa jellyae, Tervia jellyae, and Exochella jellyae.

Despite an enormous contribution to her field, Eliza’s memory has not been kept alive in the same way those of her male peers. It is fantastic that Eliza’s expert knowledge will be used as part of a new website to help researchers identify Bryozoans. Innovative big data analysis is bringing new life to old collections, and Eliza Catherine Jelly’s specimens are still contributing to science in a meaningful way.

While writing this article, Leo and Larissa have found learning about Eliza’s passion for her research inspiring. They think there is no better time to share this than International Women’s Day, and they hope that this blog post might reach others that Eliza can inspire, and go some way to undoing her current state of near-anonymity.

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