By Mark Carnall, on 8 May 2014
Every year Museum Studies Masters students have to create an exhibition as part of their course. This is a guest post by Maya Makker and Sarah McKeon two of the curators of this year’s exhibition Voices of War: UCL in World War One opening in the Institute of Archaeology.
This term, the UCL Museum Studies students have been developing an exhibition entitled “Voices of War: UCL in World War One”. We decided to ask the question: What was the involvement of UCL students and alumni in the First World War? Our goal was to profile UCL affiliates and use objects to tell their World War One stories. From the onset, one of our primary objectives for the exhibition was to include the voices of women who lived through the war. As we began researching, our content team quickly realised that numerous women at UCL made significant contributions to the war effort in an array of capacities. One such woman was Marie Stopes—scientist, activist, and UCL alumnus.
Stopes at UCL
Marie Stopes graduated from UCL in 1902 with a double First in Botany and Geology. In 1903, when she was 23, Stopes became the youngest women ever to receive her D.Sc from UCL (Copeland 2009). As a student, her primary focus was on fossils. She spent 18 months in Japan on behalf of the Royal Society collecting fossils of some of the oldest flowers in the world, and was subsequently sent to Canada to collect more fossils – many of which are in the stores at the Natural History Museum in London (Falcon-Lang 2008).
While Stopes was an accomplished scientist, she is perhaps most recognised for her work promoting awareness of women’s health, most notably with her 1918 publication Married Love. Published as a relationship manual for couples, it became an instant bestseller despite moral outcry. Before she scandalised Britain with her bestseller, however, Stopes worked as a scientist at UCL.
A Nation at War
When the war began in 1914, she was an unpaid research fellow at UCL and was commissioned by the British Museum to catalogue their Cretaceous fossil plant collection. Then, in 1916, the British Government commissioned her to research how coal could be used to benefit the floundering war effort. Her findings and subsequent publication of the Monograph on the Constitution of Coal with R.V Wheeler, changed the way coal was burned in power stations and even classified.
Remembering Her Story
In order to tell her World War One story, our collections team worked with the Grant Museum to collect objects that help illustrate Stopes’ scientific efforts. These include a Watson Service Microscope and four coal ball slides. The slides offer an example of the type of specimen that Stopes would have been examining during the war. In addition to these objects, visitors will have the opportunity to see a copy of Married Love and numerous coal specimens. All of these objects help communicate Stopes’ incredible contributions to both science and women’s health.
At the conclusion of the war, Stopes transitioned into her second, more well-known career as an activist, but her passion never left her. At a meeting of the Linnean Society in 1953 she met the young Bill Chaloner who told her, nervously, of his research into fossils to which she exclaimed: “Of course, fossil plants were my first love” (Falcon Lang, 2010). Today, Marie Stopes International works with women across the globe, bringing family planning and health services to millions.
Falcon-Lang, Howard, (2010) The Secret Life of Marie Stopes http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11040319
Copeland, Janet (2009) Marie Stopes, History Today http://www.historytoday.com/janet-copeland/marie-stopes
Falcon-Lang, Howard (2008) Marie Stopes: Passionate about Paleobotany, 24:4, Geology Today. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2451.2008.00675.x/full
“Voices of War: UCL in World War One” tells the World War One stories of 8 UCL students and researchers. It is now open in the UCL Institute of Archaeology’s A.G. Leventis Gallery.