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Marie Stopes

In the early days of geology there were few women involved in the science. At the time, it was not socially acceptable for women to accompany men on field trips into the wilderness and women were considered to be ill suited for physical fieldwork. Much has changed and today many of the preeminent voices in geologic study are women. 

Undoubtedly one of the best geology stories in New Brunswick is that of Marie Stopes. Stopes is best known to the world as a sexologist, eugenicist, and birth control pioneer. Clinics can be found around the world under the name ‘Marie Stopes International’. In 1918 she wrote a sex manual of sorts, a book titled Married Love, her views about the relationship that should exist between men and women in a marriage. The United Kingdom issued a postage stamp series about Women of Distinction in 2008, and not without great controversy, included family planning pioneer Marie Stopes.

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New Brunswick’s connection to Stopes is less controversial and certainly less well known. On the west side of Saint John on the Bay of Fundy a rocky seaside outcrop known as ‘Fern Ledges’ was first studied by the Steinhammer Club in 1860. Fred Hartt began to describe Upper Carboniferous plant fossils and more remarkably, insect fossils found in the shales. Steinammer Club members and their mentor William Dawson described the age of the rocks as Devonian. Controversy surrounding the age of the ‘Fern Ledges’ as Devonian, and its oldest known terrestrial ecosystem, began shortly after. Fifty years later at the start of the twentieth century the fight was still going on. The Geological Survey of Canada decided a resolution was needed, especially prior to the 1913 International Geological Congress and a field trip planned to the site. The Survey looked to Britain to hire a young Marie Stopes, one of the leading paleobotanists of the day, to resolve the dispute. Stopes was an interesting choice to resolve the issue. As an outsider she could be objective, but she had already caused a bit of a stir in her profession as one of the few women in her field. However her reputation as a paleobotanist was secure, having written a book Ancient Plants in 1910. Stopes travelled to Saint John to examine the outcrops herself and collect fossils for study. She borrowed fossil specimens now in the New Brunswick Museum collection, and in 1914, only a few years before she penned Married Love, Stopes produced the now classic paleobotany monograph about the ‘Fern Ledges’ flora. Her career and infamy as a sexologist, eugenicist, and birth control pioneer was yet to come.