Glossopteris, Gondwanaland, Scott and Stopes
When I first started out as a graduate, I remember being introduced to a certain managing director who was notoriously forgetful. He covered for this by attempting to remember just one thing about everybody he met. And if the one thing he remembered was trivial, irrelevant or even slightly embarrassing, too bad.
I think the tendency to remember the one big thing about a person is something many of us do naturally. Scott is a prime example. Everybody thinks “poor chap, tried to go to the South Pole and got lost on the way home”. But who remembers why he was there in the first place?
I was reminded of Robert Falcon Scott recently as I walked through Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium in Auckland. Scott wrote often in his diaries of the amusing behaviour of the Antarctic penguins. But it wasn’t the antics of the king penguins that brought him to mind. Nor was it the teeming shoals of small children that surged through the aquarium exhibits. Rather it was the lovingly detailed reproduction of Scott Base in the Antarctic that gave me the connection.
Another person chiefly famous for one thing was Marie Stopes. Stopes is best known as an early feminist and advocate of women’s rights within marriage. Her achievements are significant in this area, but she was also a prolific poet and playwright, and an important contributor to the fields of palaeobotany and coal geology.
Stopes was remarkable academically, proceeding in only four years from undergraduate admission to University College London to being awarded a PhD in Munich. She received the PhD for her work on pteridosperms (seed-bearing fern-like plants common in the Carboniferous) and coal balls (carbonate concretions which preserve the remains of peat-forming plants in fine anatomical detail). Her 1904-1907 work with David Watson at the Victoria University of Manchester transformed understanding of coal ball origins and remains influential today.
Scott was in the Antarctic for science as much as glory. The aim of the expedition was not only to reach the South Pole but to carry out extensive exploration and scientific experiments including biology, geology, glaciology, meteorology, and geophysics along the coast of Victoria Land on the Ross Ice Shelf.
It appears that Stopes met Scott at a dinner in Manchester in 1905. According to a footnote to her 1914 book,”Man, Other Poems and a Preface“, she urged him to take both her and his wife with him to Antarctica. Though he (in hindsight wisely) refused, he promised as a consolation to ‘do his utmost to find for her the fossils that she wanted’.
Scott and his party explored and took samples up and down the continent. Scott’s diary of February 8th, 1912, describes Wilson’s discovery of what, though not recognised at the time, were most likely Glossopteris fossils:
We found ourselves under perpendicular cliffs of Beacon sandstone, weathering rapidly and carrying veritable coal seams. From the last Wilson, with his sharp eyes, has picked several plant impressions, the last a piece of coal with beautifully traced leaves in layers, also some excellently preserved impressions of thick stems, showing cellular structure.
The genus Glossopteris, comprising more than 200 species of large bush or small tree, was a dominant plant in Permian ecosystems of the Southern Hemisphere. Research on Glossopteris was critical to supporting early theories of continental drift.
Scott’s expedition foundered due to a combination of bad weather and bad luck. However Scott was extraordinarily faithful to both his mission and his word. Nine months after their deaths, fossils supporting the first published occurrence of Glossopteris from Antarctica were found with the remains of Scott and his four companions by the recovery party.
We recovered all their gear and dug out the sledge with their belongings on it. Amongst these were 35 lb. of very important geological specimens which had been collected on the moraines of the Beardmore Glacier; at Doctor Wilson’s request they had stuck to these up to the very end, even when disaster stared them in the face and they knew that the specimens were so much weight added to what they had to pull.
E. L. Atkinson RN of the recovery party.
We don’t know if the party would have made the last 11 miles without the specimens. Nor do we know if Scott or Wilson (the Chief Scientist) remembered Stopes’ 1905 request.
We do know that the loss of the party must have affected Marie Stopes deeply. She wrote as much in her eloquent “In Memoriam” of 1913. Though their mission ended in human failure, Scott, Wilson, Oates and Bowers succeeded in creating a lasting scientific legacy.
To Captain Scott, R.N.
Upon her axis has the old world swung,
Since in the sun-warmed air faint music rung
From rustling leaves that waved o’er polar lands.
Since then old Time has shaken out his sands,
And seen vast continents retreat, refurled
Before dissolving waters. While the world
Shifted her angle t’ward the starry skies;
For where the white Antarctica now lies,
Time watched the ancient forests shrinking back
Before the penetrating, soft attack
Of sleepy-fingered cold, whose icy breath
Petrified life until it merged in death.
Then, with the conquered forests covered o’er
By silting muds and sand encroaching shore,
Were buried secrets that Man yearns to know –
Strange forms extinct entombed in rocks and snow,
Upon whose graves the spirits of the night
Dance fantasies in coruscating light.
Their icy queen for epochs held at bay
Truth-seekers who, fool-hardy, came that way;
Until this century has seen Man beat
The Unexplored back from this last retreat.
But the wind-voice cries,
And the wind-force hurls
Death-cloud snows in swirls.
Sharp ice banners rise
Which the wind unfurls;
They gyrate in whorls,
And they flay the prize
While shrill music skirls.
Then the white soul lies
With two priceless pearls
Where had been warm eyes.
And after it peace. Then, in the light
Of the frozen stars, for the eight-months’ night
The ghostly echo wails round the Pole
And cries, “But eleven miles from our goal!”
God! the white light round the glorious dead
Not only illumines the hero’s head,
Its lambent flame has flashed round the earth
Piercing each heart; it has given birth
In a white-hot glow to a reverent pride
In the way that our English heroes died.
Marie Stopes – February 14, 1913.
- Marie C. Stopes. Man, Other Poems and a Preface. William Heinemann. London. 1914.
- Campbell, Hamish, and Gerard Hutching. “In search of ancient New Zealand.” (2007).
- Chaloner, W. G. “The palaeobotanical work of Marie Stopes.” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 241.1 (2005): 127-135.
- FALCON-LANG, #160, and Howard J. Marie Stopes, the Discovery of Pteridosperms and the Origin of Carboniferous Coal Balls. Vol. 27. Morgantown, WV, ETATS-UNIS: West Virginia University, 2008. Print.
- David J. Cantrill, Imogen Poole. The Vegetation of Antarctica Through Geological Time. Cambridge University Press, 22/11/2012 – Science – 487 pages
- Stephen McLoughlin. “Glossopteris – insights into the architecture and relationships of an iconicPermian Gondwanan plant”. J. Botan. Soc. Bengal 65 (2) : 1-14 (2011)
- Project Gutenberg – Scott’s Last Expedition Volume I by Robert Falcon Scott