Edith Bolton (1893–1974)

Noted researcher on Carboniferous plants who was educated in the Department of Geology in Bristol and worked as Assistant Curator of Botany at Bristol City Museum.

Edith Bolton MSc, FLS was one of twins, and she moved to Bristol at the age of five when her father, Herbert Bolton (1863–1936), was appointed Curator of Natural History at Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery, and then Director from 1911 until he retired in 1930.

Edith received two degrees from the University of Bristol. First, she received her BSc in 1916, soon after which she was employed by Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery as Assistant Curator in Botany. She was awarded an MSc in 1919 or 1920 for work on the geology and palaeontology of the Carboniferous Limestone of the Chipping Sodbury area, north-east of Bristol, supervised by Sidney H. Reynolds. She presented an abstract of her thesis to the Geological Society of London, together with Margaret C. Tuck (Bolton & Tuck 1921), but this was never published in full. Earlier, she had published a short paper on Carboniferous flora and fauna (Bolton 1919).

She then took a career break of two years, working at Armstrong College in Newcastle-upon-Tyne from 1919 to 1921, where she worked on the palaeobotany of coal balls from the Newcastle and Durham Coalfield. Her post in Bristol had been kept open, and she took up her post as Assistant Curator of Botany again in 1921. While at the Museum, Edith Bolton revised the botanical and  palaeobotanical displays, and gave lectures to local natural history societies and children’s groups. Bolton resigned her post in 1930 to get married, a common circumstance then for women (Vincent 2020, p. 138).

Fraser and Cleal (2007, pp. 66-68) give more detail of her research. Edith Bolton wrote a description of medullosalean pteridosperm foliage of the ‘Neuropteris’-type preserved in a siderite nodule flora from the Phoenix Brickworks at Crawcrook, County Durham (Bolton 1926a). This was followed by a review of the palaeobotany of the Newcastle and Durham Coalfield (Bolton 1926b), and a further short paper on the cuticle of Neuropteris (Bolton 1929).

Fraser and Cleal (2007, p. 68) conclude, “All that we can say is that Edith Bolton clearly had considerable insight into the problem of morphological variation, but that she did not fulfil her potential, which was at least partly due to her lack of contact with more experienced colleagues.” It would be hard to speculate whether her apparent isolation from fellow researchers was a result of prejudice or not – Fraser and Cleal (2007) report a number of other leading female researchers in Carboniferous palaeobotany at the same time who published more and appeared to secure the collaborations and opportunities they needed. For example, Emily Dix (1904-1972) was educated at Swansea, and published numerous papers, many with her supervisor there, Arthur Trueman, soon to be Professor in Bristol, and she was appointed as Lecturer in Palaeontology at Bedford College of the University of London in 1930. For Edith Bolton, a local museum position was presumably not associated with an expectation that its holder would necessarily publish a great deal of research.

Bolton was elected Fellow of the Linnean Society, noted in her qualifications as author of Bolton (1925, 1929). There are no acknowledgements in her most significant paper (Bolton 1926), but Bolton (1929, p. 415) writes, “I should like to thank Mr. J. Walton for his kindness in showing me this method of removing fossil plants from the matrix, and for material I am also indebted to Mr. Walton and to the Keeper of the Geological Department, British Museum (Nat. Hist.), to Dr. A. E. Trueman, and to the Director, Bristol Museum” [her father!].

Read more

Bolton, E. 1919. Lower Coal Measures in relation to fossil plants and animals. Proceedings of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society, Fourth Series 5, 30–38.

Bolton, E. 1926a. A critical study of certain species of the genus Neuropteris Brongn. Journal of the Linnean Society, Botany 47, 295-327. Read the paper here.

Bolton, E. 1926b. Fossil flora of the Northumberland and Durham Coalfield. Transactions of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, New Series 6, 167–181.

Bolton, E. 1929. On the cuticle of certain species of Neuropteris Brongn. Annals of Botany 43, 414–415. Read the paper here.

Bolton, E. and Tuck, M. C. 1921. The Carboniferous Limestone of the Wickwar–Chipping Sodbury area (Gloucestershire). Abstracts of the Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 1063, 30–31.

Fraser, H.E. and Cleal, C.J. 2007. The contribution of British women to Carboniferous palaeobotany during the first half of the 20th century. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 281, 51-82. Read the paper here.

Vincent, A. 2020. Reclaiming the memory of pioneer female geologists 1800–1929, Advances in Geoscience 53, 129-154. Read the paper here.