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Marie Victoire Labour (1876-1971), like some other early women scientists, became interested in a rather obscure area of study, in her case marine planktonic organisms.  She became one of the world's foremost authorities on this subject, which involves the floating community of microscopic larvae and adult organisms that serve as the basis of the marine food web.  Her interest in science started when her father, who was a geologist, took his daughter on field trips.

Labour was born in Northumberland, England, in August of 1876. She first attended art classes at Armstrong College, but switched to zoology at Durham College of Science (where her father worked as a geologist), and she received her Bachelor of Science degree in 1904. She had already published her first paper on mollusks in 1900.  She obtained a master's degree in 1907 and then specialized in the planktonic larval forms, even branching out to planktonic diatoms and dinoflagellates.  She eventually published over 100 articles. She went to work after her masters at Leeds University, but when World War I broke out she moved to the Plymouth Marine Biological Laboratory, receiving the doctorate shortly thereafter.

After publishing several important papers on planktonic forms she produced her first book on the dinoflagellates of the northern seas, to be followed to a similar one on the planktonic diatoms of the same area. She was especially interested in the planktonic larvae of Crustacea (crabs, shrimp, etc.), but also involved herself with the larval forms of fish. Her associates found her to be kind and to have an infectious love of nature.  One of her inventions was the plunger jar for sampling plankton.

When her father died, it fell to Marie to take care of her mother, who was ailing, and she had to become part time at the laboratory.  She still churned out research and when her mother died she was able to return full time and even go on several expeditions to Bermuda, West Africa, and other places.

Although she retired in 1946, she continued to work on her beloved plankton until she was 86. She died at the age of 95, having produced research that gave science a basis for an understanding of planktonic organisms, especially in the North Atlantic.

My one connection with Marie Labour was in finding mention of her book on planktonic diatoms while I was involved in microscopy. Marine plankton is vitally important to the functioning of earth's biosphere as it is the main source of energy for vast numbers of larger creatures, including commercial fish and other organisms used for sea food. Even more importantly,  the phytoplankton (floating microscopic photosynthetic organisms that used to be considered plants), including the diatoms, produce at least 30% of the oxygen in our atmosphere and are a carbon sink. Indeed, Marie Labour was the unsung hero of a vastly important microworld. Phytoplankton are mostly ignored, but they are necessary for a world that can support us.

Since then there have been a number of women involved especially in diatom research, but Labour was a pioneer.  She seemed to be a happy person who never suffered much from her being female.

Literature Reference:

Ogilvie, Marilyn and Joy Harvey (eds.) 2000. The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. Routledge, 1500 pp.

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sat May 18, 2013 at 07:25 AM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech, Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism, and Community Spotlight.

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