Marie Stopes

“To Grow to Greenness and Renown”: Female Botanists and Botanical Illustrators

Marie Stopes’s life and career path seems a natural one, considering her parents—her father was an amateur paleontologist and her mother an English scholar and women’s rights campaigner. A dedicated scholar in her youth, Stopes studied botany and geology at University College, London, studied for her Ph.D in botany at the University of Munich (where she was the only female graduate student), and eventually became a lecturer on paleobotany and the first female academic of the University of Manchester. She made research trips to Canada and Japan to do geological field work and explore for fossilized remains of flora, and attempted to prove geologist Eduard Suess’s hypothesis of a supercontinent by studying coal formations and fossilized plants from early geological periods. She became an expert in fossil ferns, cycads and gymnosperms, and her knowledge of these subjects and her numerous published papers made her a leading figure in the field of paleobotany in her day. The illustrations displayed here are from her book Ancient Plants, which was a unique and successful attempt to introduce and explain the field of paleobotany to an audience of non-scientists; it and her other works helped inspire and influence many notable moden scientists, including Oliver Sacks. Not only a trailblazer in the field of paleobotany, Stopes was one of many pioneers of the era who had a commitment to a social understanding of women’s health and sexuality. After divorcing her first husband , Stopes published a book describing her ideal view of marriage. Married Love was both a scandal and a runaway success; it argued that marriage should be an equal partnership between husband and wife and frankly discussed female biology and sexuality. Stopes eventually left academia and with her second husband Humphrey Roe founded the first birth control clinic in England in 1921. The free clinic, which eventually expanded into a network across England, gave married women with information on reproduction and family planning, as well as proving them with contraceptive materials. Stopes’s views were not entirely laudatory, however; she held strongly eugenicist viewpoints and more than once called for sterilization of the ‘unfit’ and ‘mentally defective’. Nevertheless, her work paved the way for wider acceptance of birth control, and the modern organization bearing her name (Marie Stopes International) continues to provide contraception and family planning services to countries around the world.