Wednesday, 30 March 2016

ETHELDRED BENETT, the first female geologist

ETHELDRED BENETT, the first female geologist

To mark International Women’s Day, 8 March 2016, the Geological Society of London is holding a special exhibition showcasing a few of the pioneering activities of Etheldred Benett (1775-1845), who is recognised as the first female geologist. 

Figure 1 Silhouette of Etheldred Benett, [c.1837].
The exhibition, running until 31 May 2016, displays a selection of material sent to the Society by Benett between 1813-1842, including a number of her fossils which have been kindly curated and lent by the National Geological Repository, BGS.

Etheldred Benett was born on 22 July 1775 at Pyt House, Tisbury, Wiltshire, the eldest daughter of the local squire Thomas Benett.  Benett and her sister Anna Maria were encouraged to pursue the study of natural history by their brother-in-law, the botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert (1761–1842).

Whilst her sister concentrated on botany, Benett took up the newly fashionable study of fossils.  Unlike her near contemporary, the working class Mary Anning (1799-1847), Benett was a woman of independent wealth (she never married) who pursued the acquisition and study of fossils for her own interest. 

Collecting locations
Most of her collection comprised Jurassic and Cretaceous specimens from her home county of Wiltshire but she also collected fossils from farther afield, notably during her holidays to the Dorset Coast.  From at least 1809, people were recorded as visiting ‘Miss Benett’s collection’, and by 1810 she was engaging in correspondence with and sending material to other geologists and museums, including the Geological Society.  The first recorded donation from her was in February 1813 when we received some ‘Siliceous petrifactions from Tisbury, Wiltshire’.

Figure 2 Fossils from Wiltshire.
Figure 3 Fossils from Chicksgrove Quarry, Tisbury, Wiltshire.
Figure 4 Fossils from Weymouth, Dorset.
Benett’s particular interest was the collection and study of fossil “Alcyonia” (sponges) which, according to her only publication ‘A Catalogue of Organic Remains of the County of Wiltshire’ (1831), Warminster apparently had in abundance, particularly to the west of the town.

Benett had hopes that she could encourage the male geological community to take an interest in her fossil sponges.  However after patiently waiting a number of years and at least one of the three individuals she had in mind inconveniently dying, she took on the task herself.  The genus Polypothecia had been used in a publication by J S Miller in 1822, but Benett was the first to use the name in a binomial combination . 

Benett’s lost collection
Benett’s scientific endeavours may pre-date the more famous Mary Anning by at least a decade, but she is lesser known due to the nature and fate of her famous collection.

Figure 5 Fossil sponges Polypothecia quadriloba, from Warminster, Wiltshire.
Anning’s large and spectacular Jurassic reptiles can still be seen in the public museums around the country, but on Benett’s death on 11 January 1845, her collection was put up for auction and the majority of it was purchased by

Thomas Bellerby Wilson (1807-1865).  Wilson, an English expatriate living in Newark, Delaware, USA, spirited Benett’s collection away to America where he donated it to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1848.  By the end of the 19th Century, her collection of modestly sized, handling specimens of English provincial strata was virtually forgotten.  It would not be until the late 1980s  that her collection began to be identified and Benett’s scientific reputation established once again.

Many thanks to Mike Howe & Louise Neep of the National Geological Repository (British Geological Survey), for arranging the loan of the specimens.

Guest blog by Caroline Lam, Archivist at the Geological Society, London

Figure 1 Silhouette of Etheldred Benett, [c.1837].  One of only three known likenesses of Benett, made during a trip to Bath.

Figure 2 Fossils from Wiltshire.  In the foreground are three echini from Calne [Cidaris crenularis].  The printed location labels are Benett’s.

Figure 3 Fossils from Chicksgrove Quarry, Tisbury, Wiltshire, which accompanied two measured sections of the quarry which Benett commissioned and sent to the Society in 1815 & 1816.

Figure 4 Fossils from Weymouth, Dorset.  Probably collected by Benett whilst holidaying in the area.  

Figure 5 Fossil sponges Polypothecia quadriloba, from Warminster, Wiltshire.  The genus labels are Benett’s, as is the handwriting indicating the species.  The small number 20812, is the Society’s original accession label, from which we can tell that the specimen was received in April 1824.  The tablet onto which the fossils were glued is from the Society’s old Museum.

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