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War, Love and Coal: New Exhibition from UCL Museum Studies Students

By Mark Carnall, on 8 May 2014

Image of Voices of War Postcard

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.

Marie Stopes in her laboratory 1904 © Marie Stopes International Australia

Marie Stopes in her laboratory 1904. Image © Marie Stopes International Australia.

 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.

Grant Museum coal ball slides in the exhibition. Image Rayén Gutierrez courtesy of UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology

Grant Museum coal ball slides in the exhibition. Image Rayén Gutierrez courtesy of UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology

Image of a copy of Married Love

A copy of Married Love in the exhibition. Image Rayén Gutierrez.

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 Paleobotany24:4, 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.

To find out more about the exhibition please visit the  Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr pages.

6 Responses to “War, Love and Coal: New Exhibition from UCL Museum Studies Students”

  • 1
    Devinder wrote on 8 May 2014:

    From Fossils to Family Planning
    Heart warming story of World War 1 hero

  • 2
    Morning wrote on 10 May 2014:

    Quiet inspiring exhibition!
    Rethinking about the relation between WWI and the individuals’ life.
    Really like the emotional resonance the exhibition creates!

  • 3
    Ruth wrote on 15 May 2014:

    I’m looking forward to seeing this exhibition. I have one of Marie Stopes’s books, a manual on coal microscopy, which was presented to her by the author Clarence Seyler in 1929 – I use it quite regularly! Some one has made margin notes and marked up the text – i’m not sure if it was Marie or another person who has used it during its journey through the hands of various Earth Sciences petrologists.

  • 4
  • 5
    Marco wrote on 16 February 2015:

    I was in the Grant Museum of Zoology, beautiful place, really glad that you wrote this article, everyone should go and visit it in person 🙂

  • 6
    Patsy Whyte wrote on 27 April 2015:

    Fascination insight into one of the 20th century’s most influential women and the role she played in the First World War. Excellent!

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