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Abstract

Marie Stopes (1880–1958) is best known for her controversial writings on sex, marriage and birth control, but during her 20s and 30s she carved out a successful career as a palaeobotanist. Here, we discuss her work on the Fern Ledges of Saint John, New Brunswick. The age of these fossil beds had long been shrouded in controversy. The eminent 19th-century geologist, Sir William Dawson, had argued that they were Devonian and represented remains of the oldest known terrestrial ecosystem. In 1910, Stopes was commissioned by the Geological Survey of Canada to reassess the taxonomy and age of this fossil flora. We provide the first detailed chronology of this 18-month long research project and highlight some of the most important aspects of the study. Her outstanding monograph, characterized by precise observation and interpretation, cut through decades of muddled thinking to prove that the beds were, in fact, Pennsylvanian. In addition, her palaeoecological inferences were well ahead of their time and also had biostratigraphical implications. Although she continued to intermittently publish geological works until the mid-1930s, the Fern Ledges project, which coincided with her disastrous first marriage to Reginald Gates, marked the beginning of the end of her palaeobotanical career and the start of her more extraordinary and enduring contribution to society.

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