Elles, Gertrude (1872-1960)
Elles, Gertrude (1872-1960)
Throughout her life, Gertrude Elles made significant contributions to both the status of women in science, especially in the field of Earth sciences, and to the understanding of graptolites as zone fossils and their place within wider fossil communities.
Gertrude Lilian Elles was born in Wimbledon, Surrey near London, on October 8, 1872. At the age of 19, she attended Cambridge University studying the natural science Tripos, gaining a first class honors degree in 1895 and continuing on to become the first female to be awarded a Cambridge University Readership, 30 years later. She never married, but spent the majority of her life in Cambridge at Newnham College and was recognized as an excellent and enthusiastic teacher. Her name, however, was made not in the field of teaching, but in that of research. Elles' contribution to the study and classification of graptolites has not been surpassed to date. She spent 12 years compiling the Treatise on British Graptolites (with her colleague Ethel Wood) under the guidance of Charles Lapworth, (who named the Ordovician Period ). Their names are inextricably linked with graptolite research. Her work on the genera of graptolites from North Wales and the Skiddaw Slates of the Lake District, England and from the Wenlock Shales of the Welsh borders eventually led to Elles' receiving the prestigious Lyell Fund from the Geological Society of London. She was not able to receive it in person as women were at that time (1900) barred from attending the meetings. She was one of the first scientists to look at not individual specimens of fossils, but at the concept of communities of organisms. In 1919, she became one of the first women to become a Fellow of the Geological Society of London and the same year she received the Murchison medal from the Society in recognition of her work. In 1922, she published a seminal work on the evolution and classification of graptolites from her long study of the group. However, her work also concentrated on stratigraphy and she published over 10 papers on lower Palaeozoic stratigraphy.
Among Elles' other accolades, she received the Medal of Member of the British Empire for her work with the British Red Cross in Britain during the First World War. She was an active worker with them for many years. She was also President of the British Association in 1923. Elles considered fieldwork the key to good geology and an understanding of paleontology and stratigraphy. Eventually her love of her homeland Scotland called her back permanently (she had always spent considerable time there fishing and researching metamorphic rocks), and Gertrude Elles died in Scotland in 1960 at the age of 88.
See also Fossil record; Fossils and fossilization