Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes was born on 15th October 1880 in Edinburgh. Her father Henry was a brewer, engineer, architect and palaeontologist, and her mother Charlotte was a Shakespearean scholar and women’s rights campaigner. Her parents had met at one of the meetings of The British Association for the Advancement of Science. Marie was taken to the meetings, where she met famous scholars of the day. She attended University College London, where she studied botany and geology, graduating with a first class B.Sc. Following this she earned a D.Sc degree, becoming the youngest person in Britain to have done so. She studied further at the University of Munich, receiving a Ph.D in palaeobotany in 1904, and often lectured in palaeobotany at University College and also at the University of Manchester, where she was the first female academic. She made significant contributions to plant palaeontology and coal classification.
In 1910 the Geological Survey of Canada commissioned Marie to determine the age of the Fern Ledges at St. John, New Brunswick, and she arrived in North America just before Christmas to start her research. On 29th December she met the Canadian researcher Reginald Ruggles Gates, and they became engaged 2 days later. The couple married in March 1911 and returned to England on 1st April, but the marriage was annulled in 1912.
Around this time Marie began to write a book about the way she thought marriage should work. In 1915 she met Margaret Sanger, who had just given a talk about birth control. Marie showed Margaret her writing and sought her advice about a chapter on contraception. She offered the book to publishers Blackie & Son, but they and several other publishers declined it because they thought it too controversial. When she was introduced to philanthropist Humphrey Verdon Roe in 1917 he paid Fifield & Co to publish the work. The book ‘Married Love’ was an instant success and elevated Marie to national prominence. Marie and Humphrey were married in May 1918.
The success of ‘Married Love’ encouraged Marie to provide a follow-up, and a book on birth control ‘Wise Parenthood; a Book for Married People’ was published later that year. She also published a 16 page free pamphlet for working class women on how to avoid ‘weakening pregnancies’. Unfortunately her own first pregnancy ended in a stillbirth when she was 38, but she went on to have a son when she was 44, the philosopher Harry Stopes-Roe, born March 27th 1924.
Marie resigned her lectureship with University College and concentrated on opening a birth control clinic with her husband (although she did not approve of abortion). The Mothers’ Clinic near Tottenham Court Road, London, was opened on 17th March 1921, offering mothers free birth control advice from midwives and visiting doctors. In 1925 the clinic moved to Central London, where it remains today. Marie also opened a network of clinics across Britain, working to fund them. Today the organisation Marie Stopes International works in over 40 countries and has 452 clinics.
Marie was acquainted with many literary figures of the day, and she herself wrote plays and poetry. Her first major success ‘Our Ostriches’ dealt with society’s approach to working class women being forced to produce babies throughout their lives, and ran for 3 months at the Royal Court Theatre.
An author, palaeobotanist, and campaigner for eugenics and women’s rights, Marie Stopes died of breast cancer on 2nd October 1958 aged 77 at her home in Dorking, Surrey. She was even remembered in a playground rhyme:
Jeanie, Jeanie, full of hopes,
Read a book by Marie Stopes.
But, to judge from her condition,
She must have read the wrong edition.