The mystery of geologist Anne Phillips

Records on the trailblazing geologist Anne Phillips are few and far between, here are four facts you may not have heard of.

  • Anne Phillips

    Credit: Royal Institution Archival Collection

Even though she was a trailblazing geologist, records of the life of Anne Phillips are fragmented and rare. Let's explore what is known about this woman of science.

She came from an incredible family

 The Phillips family was a shining collection of stars in the field of geology. Anne was the niece of William Smith, the man who published the first geological map of Britain.

But the most important person in her life was her brother John Phillips, whom she assisted for most of her life. John and Anne were orphaned at a young age and John progressed from being an orphan in the care of his uncle, to geology professor at Oxford.

 

She uncovered the origins of Britain’s Malvern Hills

In 1842, Anne accompanied her brother on a geological expedition to the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. At the time, the most popular theory on how the hills formed was advocated by Sir Roderick Murchison, who argued that the rocks of the main Malvern ridge were younger than the Silurian sediments in the area, and formed at a later date, forcing their way up.

During her own reconnaissance, Anne located a conglomerate of the igneous rocks at the base of the Silurian sediments, proving the Malvern Ridge had in fact formed first - thus proving Sir Murchison wrong.

The rock was named Miss Phillips Conglomerate, and it became a popular collectable item after she discovered it.

In an era where women were expected to lead domestic lives, her work was even more remarkable, as in her discovery she proved an eminent man wrong.

 
  • Miss Phillips’ Conglomerate

    Credit: u/englyn via Reddit (used with permission)

  • Malvern Hills

    Credit: Saffron Blaze on Wikimedia Commons

She was possibly one of the first members of the Royal Institution

Her brother John gave three Evening Discourses at the Ri during the mid-1800s. One of them was titled ‘On the Malvern Hills’.

A picture of Anne Phillips was found in Michael Faraday's folio and is one of the very rare surviving images of the trailblazing geologist.

She was instrumental to her brother's work

Anne was John Phillips' housekeeper and assistant. But it wasn't until years after her death, when her brother's letters were transcribed, that we truly understood her contribution to the field.

In a letter to Anne, John wrote:

“Whatever I possess is as much yours as mine, for without you I should not have won it.”

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