Childhood & Early Life
Marie Stopes was born on October 15, 1880 to Henry Stopes and Charlotte Carmichael Stopes in Edinburgh. Her father was an engineer and palaeontologist while her mother was a Shakespearean scholar. The family shifted base to London when she was six.
Initially home-schooled, young Stopes attended the St George School for Girls in Edinburgh from 1892 to 1894. Later, she was enrolled at the North London Collegiate School.
Completing her early education, Stopes attended the University College London where she studied botany and geology. In 1902, she graduated with a B.Sc. honors and immediately thereafter, earned a doctorate degree from University College London, thereby becoming the youngest person in Britain to achieve the same.
With an aim to prepare herself for a scientific career, she enrolled at the University of Munich. Stopes attained a Ph.D in palaeobotany in 1904. Concurrently, she served as the Fellow and Lecturer in Palaeobotany at University of Manchester from 1904 to 1907, thus becoming the first female science academician at the University.
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Stopes scientific career started on a successful note. She indulged herself in the study of the composition of coal and conducted research on the history of angiosperms.
Her excellence as an academician earned her a grant from the British Royal Society. Based on the same, she travelled to Tokyo in 1907 for a scientific mission. Stopes spent much of her time studying and exploring fossillised plants near Hokkaido coal mine. In 1910, she published her daily findings of these studies and explorations under, ‘Journal from Japan’.
In 1910, she was appointed to determine the age of the Fern Ledges by the Geological Survey of Canada. She moved to North America and indulged herself in studying the geological collections in museums. Meanwhile, in 1911, she married Reginald Ruggles Gates in St Louis, Missouri.
In 1913, she accepted the position of lecturer of paleobotany at the University College. In 1914, her marriage to Gates was annulled due to latter’s impotency.
From 1914, she continued with her research program and wrote several books in her field of speciality. Some of the books published during this time include, ‘The Constitution of Coal’, ‘The Four Visible Ingredients in Banded Bituminous Coal: Studies in the Composition of Coal’ and so on.
While legal proceeding for her divorce was on-going, Stopes turned her attention from scientific work to concentrate on the topic of marriage, love and sex. Influenced by Margaret Sanger’s work on birth control, Stopes started penning a book that was primarily based on the theme of love, marriage and sex.
Stopes finished her book, ‘Married Love’ in 1913. However, she failed to find publisher for the book as people thought it to be brazenly loud and audacious for its unabashed discussion on sexual relationships.
In 1917, Stopes met her future husband Humphrey Roe, a pilot and philanthropist who shared her interest on birth control. In 1918, he published her book, ‘Married Love’. Despite being condemned by the Church, press and medical society, the book was an instant success. It sold more than 2000 copies within a fortnight and by the end of the year was re-printed six times.
The superlative success of ‘Married Love’ put Stopes on a famed list. Her radical views on sexual relationships and equality of men and women in marriage generated much publicity. Women started writing to Stopes seeking her advice on marital issues and contraceptives.
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Banking on the wide publicity and fame, Stopes published her second book, ‘Wise Parenthood’ which was a follow-up of ‘Married Love’. Just as the name suggests, the book was a manual on birth control. Through the book, she recommended the use of cervical caps for contraception. She even gave detailed knowledge to her readers on the physical facts of sexuality through her drawings of human anatomy.
In 1919, she came up with a 16-page pamphlet that was aimed primarily for the working class. Titled, ‘A Letter to the Working Mothers’, the pamphlet was a condensed version of her last book ‘Wise Parenthood’
Resigning from her position as a lecturer at the University College, Stopes along with her husband Roe opened a family planning clinic in London in 1920. Named Mother’s Clinic, it was open to all married women and offered free advice on reproductive health and methods of birth control.
In 1921, she founded Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress, a support organization for the clinic. In 1925, her Mother’s Clinic moved base to Central London where it remains till date. She set up a small network of clinics across Britain. By 1930s, she opened clinics in Leeds, Aberdeen, Belfast, Cardiff and Swansea.
In 1922, a Roman Catholic doctor, Haliday Sutherland wrote a book that attacked Stopes of using poor women for birth control experiments. Denying the charges, she instead sued Sutherland for libel. The trial between Stopes and Sutherland became highly publicized. Though Sutherland was cleared of charges, the trials gained Stopes much publicity.
In 1933, she came up with the book, ‘Roman Catholic Methods of Birth Control’. Through it, she published a formal contradiction of the Church attacks on her works.
By 1930, other family planning organisations had been set up. Together with Stopes, they formed the National Birth Control Council that later turned into Family Planning Association.
Stopes, towards the end of her career, became highly disillusioned with her humanitarian cause and retreated herself to concentrate on literary pursuits. She befriended famous literary figures of that time and inspired by them, took to writing poems and plays. Some of her works of this time include, ‘Love Songs for Young Lovers’, ‘We Burn’ and ‘Joy and Verity’
Personal Life & Legacy
Stopes was briefly involved in a romantic relationship with Japanese botanist, Kenjiro Fujii, whom she met at the University of Manchester in 1904.
She married Canadian geneticists, Reginald Ruggles Gates in 1911. Stope refusal to leave her maiden name and Gates impotency led to brawls between the two which eventually ended in divorce.
Following her divorce to Gates, Stopes married Humphrey Roe in 1918. The couple was blessed with a son in 1924. Prior to this, Stopes delivered a stillborn baby in 1919 which started her lifelong distrust against doctors. In 1938, she separated from Humphrey.
In 1923, she shifted to Old Higher Lighthouse on the Isle of Portland, Dorset. Therein, she founded the Portland Museum which opened in 1930.
Towards the end of her life, Stopes suffered from bad health. However, due to her distrust of doctors, she refused any medical intervention. It was only when she reached the advanced stage of breast cancer that her ailment was diagnosed. Even thereafter, she refused standard treatment and instead opted for holistic therapy.
Stopes breathed her last on October 2, 1958, at her home in Dorking, Surrey. According to her will, she left her clinic to the Eugenics Society. Most of her estate went to the Royal Society of Literature.
Posthumously, an English Heritage blue plaque was erected in Upper Norwood, where she lived from 1880 to 1892, in her commemoration.