A collection of brachiopod specimens

Helen Marguerite Muir-Wood: my Musuem hero

Brachiopod curator Zoë Hughes celebrates the life and work of one of the Museum's great pioneering geologists.

Dr Helen Muir-Wood was once Curator of Brachiopods at the Museum, which is the post that I hold today. When arranging my fantasy dinner party with my heroes, I would definitely give Helen a seat.

Born in 1895, Helen was first employed by the Department of Geology (now Earth Sciences) at the British Museum (Natural History) in 1919. 

Her career began as a part-time curator, moving to assistant with full charge of the brachiopod collections a year later. This post was held by Helen (with many promotions) until she retired in 1965 at the age of 70. 

Helen Muir-Wood in a staff photo from around 1955

Helen Muir-Wood in a Museum staff photo from around 1955

 

What are brachiopods?

Brachiopods are shellfish, and they suffer from a lack of appreciation and general awareness. They are not a typically glamorous group compared to animals like reptiles, mammals and fish.

Part of the problem that brachiopods have is that they live a still, quiet, filter feeding existence in the ocean. They were once thought to be related to clams and oysters. After a torrid taxonomic history, they were not believed to be their own phylum until as late as 1921, although the term was first associated with the group in 1806.

Brachiopods are a peculiar animal. They have two shells like some molluscs, and some have a worm-like structure that allows them to attach themselves to things like rocks or other organisms. They also have a food catching, hairy tentacle similar to bryozoans. 

The Museum's Geology department in 1938

The Museum's Geology department in 1938. Helen Muir-Wood is seated on the front row on the left. The other female member of staff is Dorothea Bate.

 

A new classification system

During her working life, Helen produced more than fifty memoirs and papers on all aspects of the brachiopoda, ranging through geological time and geographic scope.

She was mostly interested in the morphology, systematics and evolution of the Early Palaeozoic (about 540 milion years ago) to modern genera. She became well known for pioneering a classification system on Mesozoic species from about 252-66 million years ago.

This system was based upon the internal anatomy of the species. Bringing this technique to Britain made it much more mainstream and prompted a major step forward in the science community's understanding of evolution and variation in brachiopods.   

Aside from three years spent working for the Admiralty during the Second World War, Helen devoted her life to brachiopods. During her posting with the Admiralty in Bath she would hunt for brachiopods in the Great Oolite, a nearby rock formation. It could be argued she didn't even let a war prevent her from engaging with her true passion.  

Curator of Fossil Invertebrates Zoe Hughes with a specimen from the collection

Curator of Fossil Invertebrates Zoe Hughes with a specimen from the collection. She now cares for some of the same specimens that Helen did before her.

 

A legacy for geology

It was once said that Thomas Davidson, the great nineteenth-century brachiopod specialist, was the last person to know every British brachiopod. But Helen came close to this at a time when the number of species was increasing rapidly.

It can even be argued that she surpassed Davidson, because her knowledge went far beyond that of the British Isles - it was truly global. While she didn't participate actively in fieldwork, she took advantage of the position she held at the Museum and undertook the study, identification and description of specimens from the vast collections, which have phenomenal global and stratigraphic coverage.

My favourite quote about Muir-Wood is taken from her obituary, written by another of my brachiopod expert heroes, Derek Ager:

'Her somewhat regal presence was a little frightening to more timid souls, both because of the evident vastness of her knowledge and because her stern demands for exhaustive bibliographic research and extreme accuracy in morphological study.'

What was 'frightening' about Helen Muir-Wood has been recounted to me from the colleagues who had the pleasure of working with her at the very start of their careers.

One great brachiopod researcher, Ellis Owen, says that she 'was always keen to guide the unwary newcomer to safe ground with liberal understanding and kindness'. This perhaps makes me all the more sad that I am of a different generation and never had the opportunity to be guided by her firm hand.

She was one of the great pioneers in her subject and indeed in the Geology department. By holding the position of Deputy Keeper, she reached the highest rank of any woman here until Angela Milner in the 1990s.

In Ellis Owen's words, 'This appointment previously held only by a male member of the department, counted for more than a major triumph in her life, for her views were distinctly those of a feminist. These views may have been strengthened by her early difficulties in establishing herself in what had always been a distinctly male profession.'

Dorothea Bate

Dorothea Bate was another of the Museum's first female scientists, working at the institution at the same time as Helen.

Find out more about her work and legacy.