International Womens Day 2023 -Charlotte Murchison

Murchison-Charlotte-1860 We have named the lecture theatre in Murchison House, ‘ The Charlotte Murchison Lecture Theatre’.  We will have its celebratory opening on International Women’s Day 2023. This will follow nicely from other rooms at Kings Buildings which we have named for Mary Somerville and Xia Peisu.

It is from Mary Somerville’s writing that we know something of Charlotte

“an amiable accomplished woman, [who] drew prettily and – what was rare at the time – she had studied science, especially geology, and it was chiefly owing to her example that her husband turned his mind to those pursuits in which he afterwards obtained such distinction.”[1]

if you will indulge me:


Did you know that IWD began with a strike by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU)? It was originally called “International Working Women’s Day“, its purpose was to give laboring women a focusing point in their struggle for fair working conditions and pay.  ‘International’ in this context may have meant ‘immigrant’ international ladies, rather than being an international union.

My great grandma Sadie was a member of ILGWU.  A Jewish woman working in dangerous factory conditions as a garment worker in New York.

15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote.

It was first celebrated internationally in 1911. The centenary was celebrated in 2011, so this year we’re celebrating the 111th International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day has become a date to celebrate how far women have come in society, in politics and in economics, while we are in the  middle of a sustained period of industrial action in this university  strikes and protests  and events are organised on campus to raise awareness of continued inequality. Striking ( collective bargaining by Beatrice Webb)

The first theme adopted by the UN (in 1996) was “Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future”.

The UN’s theme for 2023 is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”. This theme aims to recognise and celebrate the contribution women and girls are making to technology and online education.

Some of you may have heard me before going on about the pay gap and the pensions gap. There is also a digital gender gap  and the UN estimates that women’s lack of access to the online world will cause a $1.5 trillion dollar loss to gross domestic product of low and middle-income countries by 2025 if action isn’t taken.

Naming lecture theatres

This year’s IWD theme is #embraceequity, emphasizing the need to challenge gender bias and inequality to create a more inclusive world for all. Charlotte chose to challenge the fact that Charles Lyell did not allow women to attend his Geology lectures. She and her friend Mary Somerville would repeatedly turn up to his lectures and ask to be let in. Eventually he relented and his lectures became a little bit more inclusive after all.

Charlotte Rocks

Charlotte Murchison, Lady Murchison (née Hugonin; 18 April 1788 – 9 February 1869) was a British geologist who traveled widely with her husband Roderick. She was the daughter of a botanist and she was the one who had the passion for science, he was primarily interested in horseriding and fox hunting, but she managed to get him to see this as fun way to spend time and travel with friends.

Charlotte developed a significant collection of fossils during  their travels, and created geological sketches of important features.

She  knew the importance of social networks, she hosted gatherings and parties ( scientific salons), inviting many of the  scientists of the time. She was friends with Mary Somerville, Benjamin Disraeli, William and Mary Buckland, Charles and Mary Lyell, Humphrey Davy and Mary Anning.

What I know of the Bucklands, parties at their house in Oxford would have been quite the thing, as they were Zoophagists – they ate their way through an entire zoological and natural history collection.

The reason we are naming a lecture theatre: In addition to the obvious reasons for celebrating the history of women in scince and having visible role models for our students. She was keen to access higher education and when Lyell initially refused to let women attend his geology lectures ( at Kings College London) Charlotte and Mary Somerville were part of the crowd who turned up to gain entrance. Her lobbying resulted in his change of mind and women were allowed in. This was in 1831. Although Lyell allowed them in, Kings banned them again the following year, and Lyell resigned.

This was not a bad-natured interaction, they were close friends, infact Lyell and the Murchisons travelled together. In 1828 they travelled around Europe. We can find in the Murchison and Lyell papers  information about how they conducted their research as a team.   They divided up the tasks in order to be more productive. Lyell and Roderick Murchison decided about routes and research topics and travelled long distances walking and climbing, taking stratigraphical sections and correlations of structures. Charlotte did most of the time-consuming fossil-hunting, sketching of landscapes and geological structures and, since she spoke French, engaged with local experts. Her fluency in languages and skills in drawing undoubtedly contibuted to the success of her husbands research. (Similar stories for Mary Buckland and Mary Lyell) Like Somerville, she lived to old age, died at 80.

Her work on fossils attracted acclaim and a find in Portree, Isle of Skye in Scotland  inspired Ammonites murchinsoniae to be named in her honor. James Sowerby  named the ammonite after her, which seems only fair as she was the one who found it.

She is widely recognised now as a woman who made significant contribution to the study of geology and fossil hunting but was overlooked in her own time .

Charlotte’s important fossil collection appeared in  William Fitton’s  ‘Strata Below the Chalk’ showing how areas of the earth had been sea, then lake or river, then sea again.

Tenuous link to talking about chalk.

The learning technology teams at University of Edinburgh look after learning spaces and teaching rooms across all our campuses. Information about all centrally managed teaching spaces supported by Learning Spaces Technology. Choose “Room details” to get more detail

The room we are naming is in the Murchison Building on the Kings Buildings campus. Kings Buildings is a campus which is rapidly changing. Our most recent big fit out is the new Nucleus building. It is a huge new space. All the lecture theatres are named after trees.

Although we fit a lot of digital technology in teaching spaces now, one of the most poular tools is still the good old chalk board.

The Nucleus Building has five state of the art lecture theatres which offer a variety of teaching styles from traditional 400 seat “eyes front” to collaborative 300 seat “turn & learn” spaces, all equipped with enhanced audio-visual equipment. And nearly 90 sq meters of chalk board writing surface.  Once fitted, easy to maintain, no need for a user guide, lasts for years. probably our most sustainable, lowest impact learning technology tools.

Writing surfaces like chalk boards slow the pace of teaching with speaking and explaining at the speed of writing.  It also keep the lights on, using a chalkboard means the lights in the classroom have to be up.  It’s when the lights go down and the lecture theatre becomes more like a cinema that students start to fall asleep.

Thank you for coming, thank you to the teams in Learning Spaces Teachnology and graphic design ( Lesley Greer and Julie Freeman)  and all the team who help me in getting this done.

Just to return to the fact that The UN’s theme for 2023 is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”.

this requires gender-responsive approach to innovation, technology and digital education which raises  awareness of women and girls regarding their rights and civic engagement and access to education

even as we talk about the university’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals the opportunities of the digital revolution  risk perpetuating existing patterns of gender inequality.  inclusive and transformative technology and digital education is  crucial for a sustainable future.

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