Women in Geosciences Series

We have so busy organising events that it’s been a while since we posted about a true trailblazer! In this instalment of the Women in Geoscience series we discover the groundbreaking work of Dr Catherine Alice Raisin, an inspirational advocate for education for all. Join us as we discover more about her contribution to the British, and indeed international, world of geoscience…

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Dr Catherine Alice Rasin (1855-1945)

Recognised for?

  • The first women to study Geology at University College London.
  • The first women to receive the Lyell Fund (at a time when women could not attend).
  • The second women ever to receive a doctorate degree in geology.

Catherine’s Story:

Catherine Raisin was born in 1855 in Camden in London. Catherine’s interest in geology grew from an early age which she attributes to Sir Charles Lyell ‘’whose Principles of Geology was one of the most punctual books to stir my energy’ (Raisin, 1893). After graduating from the North London Collegiate School, a progressive and pioneering girl’s only school, Raisin went on to attend geology classes at University College London (UCL). It was here that Catherine developed a strong love of mineralogy, but not before waiting to begin a degree until they were open to women in 1878. In the interim year, Catherine studied botany, earning a special certificate in 1878.

In 1879, Catherine passed the Intermediate Science examination and alongside zoology and botany, studied geology, becoming the first women to do so at UCL. Catherine excelled in her course earning her BSc Honour degree in both geology and zoology as the top UCL graduate in 1884. During her undergraduate degree, at the age of just 25, Raisin initiated the Somerville Club, a dedicated discussion group for women, later disbanded in 1887 once opportunities for women were became more commonplace.

Catherine Alice Raisin teaching
Dr Catherine Raisin teaching students at Bedford College.

After graduation, she worked as a volunteer research assistant to Professor T.G. Bonney under whom she had studied geology. In 1886, Catherine became a demonstrator of botany at Bedford College, where she would spend her entire academic career. From 1890-1920, Raisin became the first full-time head of geology and helped to establish a separate geography department.

Catherine Alice Raisin Sommerville Club
Staff of Bedford College c.1900. Dr Catherine Raisin is standing far right in back row. From Burek & Higgs (2007).

Raisin’s work on metamorphism earned her the first ever Lyell Fund award from the Geological Society of London (GSL) to a women. Unfortunately, ladies were not permitted to attend GSL meetings and so Rasin’s colleague and former supervisor, T.G. Bonney had to accept the award on her behalf. Raisin did however travel widely for her work, something unusual for a women to do at this time, and is known to have attended the International Geological Conference in Toronto in 1913.

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Attendees of the International Geological Conference in Toronto, 1913. Dr Catherine Raisin is sitting second from the left, second row.

Raisin continued her research in microscopic petrology and mineralogy obtaining her PhD from the University of London in 1898, becoming only the second female geologist ever to achieve this. From 1989-1901, Raisin became the first women to act as Vice Principal of Bedford College and in 1902 she was elected a University College fellow. Raisin was a favoured and inspirational teacher strongly fought for equality in education, encouraging her female students of their uncapped potential. One of her last students, the famous granite expert Doris Reynolds, said of Raisin

It was Catherine Raisin who first interested me in geology, and from whom I inherited my love for petrology; I owe very much to her long memory and unbiased teaching. She was not only a stimulating and enthusiastic teacher, who worked ungrudgingly to promote their interests, but also a generous, brave and sympathetic women. Doris Reynolds

Throughout her research, much of which focused on chert, serpentines and spillites Raisin published vast numbers of papers, but many early papers had to be presented by her male colleagues including Bonney since women remained prohibited from attending GSL meetings. In 1906 Raisin became a fellow of the Linnean Society of London in 1906 and in 1919 also became the ninth women to become a fellow of the Geological Society of London, after the society changed its rules to allow women.

Throughout her career Raisin advocated fiercely for equality in education, often paying wages herself and setting up various awards and funds to encourage her students to succeed. After retirement, she continued to push for equality, working with women’s groups.

Her resignation letter as Vice-Principle echoes her sentiments about equality for all:

The true ideal of a University standard must be kept in view. This will be for women (as in older universities it has been for men) to encourage the desire to search for knowledge for its own sake. Catherine Raisin












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