Doyenne of geology celebrates 100th birthday

22 May 2013 | Story by Newsroom
100 up: Centenarian Emer Prof Morna Mathias, with her daughter, Iona, and pastor, John Broom, at the celebration of her milestone birthday on 20 May.
100 up: Centenarian Emer Prof Morna Mathias, with her daughter, Iona, and pastor, John Broom, at the celebration of her milestone birthday on 20 May.

Emeritus Professor Morna Mathias, formerly of the Department of Geology, celebrated her 100th birthday with friends and family on 20 May.

She was born Frances Celia Morna Cameron-Swan, the granddaughter of the late Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, the English physicist and chemist who was most famous for producing an early electric light bulb before its invention by Thomas Edison. Sir Joseph also invented the dry photographic plate, an important improvement in photography and a step in the development of photographic film.

Morna was educated in England and attended Wynberg Girls' High School. She studied geology at UCT, after a taunt from her brother that the field was "too difficult for a woman".

In her typically determined manner, Morna not only tackled her undergraduate degree but went on to complete her MA in 1935 and her PhD in 1941.

She was the first woman academic appointment in geology (there have been only two since then, in 2006 and 2010) and the only woman associate professor of geology at UCT. Morna was awarded her DSc in 1956 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa.

Morna also has the singular honour of having a mineral named after her, Mathiasite, a potassic iron-zirconium-magnesium chromian titanate, found in the deep mantle of the Earth below Southern Africa, typically at depths of greater than 100km. It was described in a 1983 paper in the journal American Mineralogist by Steve Haggerty (University of Massachusetts at Amherst) and others.

The naming recognised her foundation studies on alkaline rocks and her early contribution to the mineralogy, petrology and geochemistry of mantle-derived eclogites and peridotites.

In 1972 Morna retired as an associate professor, after serving two years at this rank. Prior to her promotion to associate professor, she was on UCT's permanent staff for 25 years (1946 to 1970), as lecturer (1946 to 1957) and senior lecturer (1957 to 1970).

At the time of her promotion ad hominem to the rank of associate professor, the criterion for such promotion was that the person be 'chair-worthy'; in other words, appointable as a professor if a chair were to have been advertised.

Despite the demands of life as a senior academic and teacher (which included field trips with her students), Morna balanced academia with her role as a wife and mother. She married David Mathias at St Barnabas Church on Kloof Nek Road on 19 December 1936. Their daughter, Iona, was born in 1941.

Speaking at her 100th birthday celebration at Trianon in Diep River, the centenarian said she had been "overwhelmed" by the gathering of well-wishers, family and friends.

In a short address, her pastor, John Broom, said Morna had been "a friend to many, a mentor to many, a wonderful teacher, and an inspiration to all".

He recalled that on the occasion of her 90th birthday, Morna had attended a youth group meeting on the Sunday evening and had "rocked the flock" of some 500 young people.

Good wishes also came from former students, via Monday Paper, shortly before her milestone birthday.

Dr John Rogers emailed: "I can add that she was the only lecturer ¬ senior lecturer, in my day -who invited her honours class to her home, in Newlands at the time. This was a kindness to us and we appreciated it immensely.

"At the same time, she was the most diligent and organised lecturer I encountered in the matter of keeping abreast of her field of igneous petrology. She would photocopy the contents page of each journal she was following, way before the internet, and then make a point of reading, meticulously, the most relevant articles. This took some doing, but it showed in her teaching, as she could refer to the latest research immediately, while lecturing."

From Chris Hartnady, a former student in her courses on crystallography, mineralogy and igneous petrology: "I'm delighted to hear that Morna is about to reach her centenary. I particularly recall her teaching me the use of 3-D universal-stage microscopy in the fourth-year (honours) advanced mineralogy course.

"Morna was a strict but extremely likeable teacher. Her lectures were always interesting and informative, never boring. She had a great sense of humour, quite subtle and wry. She was inspiring, mainly for the high standards that she set, and her obvious love and enthusiasm for her subject.

"She also had a great presence and authority in the lecture hall, which she quickly established over even the rowdiest of classes (and geologists can be rowdy). The undergraduate class was probably about 90% male. Morna also mentored Erica Westall (now Forder) as a teaching assistant/demonstrator and temporary junior lecturer, so we had experience of two woman lecturers, back then in the relative 'dark ages'."

Emailing from Canada, Professor John Gurney wrote: "My congratulations and best wishes to Morna. I was in fact never a student of hers, but had a lot of contact with her during my doctoral thesis and immediately afterwards. She was a legend in the earth sciences at UCT."

(Helen Swingler)

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