There once was a most sacred name

bestowed upon many a dame.

There’s something about Mary.

All hail to her. Dare we

acknowledge her legendary fame?

All you’ll have guessed, today’s blog is all about Mary.  A name given to monarchs, ships, nursery rhyme characters, churches, schools, an alcoholic drink and a particularly catchy Scissor Sisters song.

History has produced many a Mary, although less so in recent times. Earlier this week the 2014 list of the UK’s most popular baby names was published: surprisingly Mary didn’t make the top 100 for baby girls. (And this in spite – or perhaps because – of the influence of Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary.

But with Christmas on its way, Mary is about to become the leading lady in nativity plays, carol services and festive sermons up and down the country. So what better time to pay homage to Marys past and present? There is, after all, something about Mary.

Eight exceptional Marys (in no particular order)

1. Sister Mary Kenneth Keller: nun extraordinaire

Chances are, you’ve never heard of Sister Mary Kenneth Keller. Born in Ohio in the mid-1910s, she became a nun in 1940. But she’s not just your average nun. She was also the first woman in the US to achieve a PhD in computer science, in 1965, after doing degrees in Mathematics and Physics. She founded a computer science department at a university in Iowa, which she led for two decades, and was passionate about widening access to information.

2. Mary Anning: the world’s greatest fossilist

Born in 1799, Mary Anning was a British fossil collector and palaeontologist. Her work involved collecting fossils that had been dislodged during landslides on Dorset’s Blue Lias cliffs – a dangerous task. Despite making successful fossil discoveries, she never really received the recognition she deserved during her lifetime: her male-dominated industry didn’t accept women easily and they were barred from joining the Geological Society of London. Nevertheless, the British Journal for the History of Science described her as ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew’.

3. Mary Wollstonecraft: feminist philosopher

Wollstonecraft was an 18th-century writer, philosopher, and women’s rights advocate. She’s best known for her forward-thinking 1972 text, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, she argued that women aren’t inferior to men and deserve to have an education. Wollstonecraft died aged 38, just 10 days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary (who followed in her mother’s literary footsteps and wrote the classic novel ‘Frankenstein’, under her married name, Shelley).

4. Mary Seacole: battlefield nurse

Seacole is often referred to as the ‘black Florence Nightingale’ – a lazy title that brings up all sorts of issues (best saved for another blog). Born in 1805 in Jamaica, to a Scottish solider and free Jamaican woman, Seacole overcame racial and gender-based prejudice to pursue a career in nursing. When the Crimean War began in 1853 she moved to London to help, but the War Office refused her request to become an army nurse. Undaunted, she sailed independently to the Crimea. There, she opened a hotel offering ‘comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’, and visited the battlefield to nurse the wounded on both sides of the conflict.

5. Mary Magdalene: the apostle’s apostle

Jesus’ foremost female follower has commonly been labelled a prostitute: a theory never explicitly mentioned in the Bible. But forget what Dan Brown says: better to remember Mary Magdalene as the second-most important women in the New Testament (the top spot goes to the other Mary). A remarkably faithful follower of Jesus at a time when women were often maligned, she was present at two of history’s most important events: Jesus’ death and his resurrection. She was the first person to see the risen Jesus, recognising him after he uttered that immortal word: “Mary!” She passed on the good news to the disciples, earning her the title of “the apostle to the apostles”.

6. Mary Carpenter: social reformer

Mary Carpenter had a vision to ensure poor children and juvenile offenders in Bristol received an education. Born in 1807, she founded ‘ragged schools’ and reformatories for these children, giving them previously unavailable opportunities to learn and grow. She was passionate about showing love to young offenders, saying: “They must as far as possible be brought to feel themselves a part of society… [and] having been outcasts, welcomed into it with Christian love.” She spent much of her life lobbying for educational and penal reform, and campaigned for female access to higher education.

7. Marie Curie: a Nobel cause

Although not technically a ‘Mary’, I thought I’d slip this one in, since Marie is a common variation of the name. And let’s face it: no list would be complete without a mention of Marie Curie, the first female Nobel Prize winner and the first (and only woman) to win the prize twice: for physics and chemistry. Born in Poland in 1867, she was a pioneering researcher into radioactivity. Her work played a key role in the development of x-rays for surgical use. During WW1 she drove ambulances – which she’d helped equip with x-ray equipment, to the front lines. Sadly, she died relatively young, in 1934, from a condition related to radiation exposure.

8. Mary: mother of Christ

The mother of all Marys. Need I say any more?

This list is by no means exhaustive. There are plenty of other famous Marys: Queen of Scots, Poppins, Beard, Robinson, Berry, Shelley, Portas and J Blige to name but a few (feel free to delete those you don’t rate). And there are no doubt plenty of celebrated Josephs too, should anyone fancy writing a male version of the list. But I’ll leave that task to someone else.

Have a Mary Christmas!*

*Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Written by Tomi Ajayi // Follow Tomi on  Twitter

Nigerian-born but northern-bred, Tomi works in the media team of an international development NGO in London, telling stories about the people at the heart of the fight against poverty. She spent most of 2014 living in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Tomi suffers from chronic procrastination and has yet to master the art of time-keeping. She occasionally dabbles in poetry writing: her secret ambition is to be Britain’s first limerick laureate.

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