In the late 18th and early 19th century, men like James Hutton and Sir William Hamilton were widely respected earth scientists.
At the same time women were also contributing to the founding of the science of geology, but quietly. Today we know very little about them. For instance, meet T. Etheldred Benett, 1776-1845 – fossil collector, stratigrapher, and scientific correspondent:
That’s it – that’s all we have for an image of her.
However, this “lady of great talent and indefatigable research,” as Gideon Mantell described her:
- Left behind a huge collection of Cretaceous and Jurassic fossils from south Wiltshire in England, including the first mollusc fossils ever found that contained preserved bits of the original soft anatomy
- Corresponded with some of the foremost naturalists of the day
- Wrote a publication, A catalogue of the organic remains of the county of Wiltshire (1831), that remains a classic work today
In a time when women weren’t admitted to centers of higher learning, Tsar Nicholas I gave her an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Petersburg…but only because he thought her first name was that of a man.
Ever the sharp commentator, Miss Benett (she never married) said of the incident (link added):
They have made me a member of the Imperial Natural History Society of Moscow and have sent me a Diploma of the appointment, but it is provoking that no one will believe that a Lady could write such a trifling thing – in this Diploma I am called Dominum Etheldredum Benett and Mr Lyell told me that he had been written to by foreigners to know if Miss Benett was not a Gentleman … So you see that scientific people in general have a very low opinion of the abilities of my sex.
In such an environment, how did women like Etheldred Benett and her younger contemporary Mary Anning get started?
In the late 18th century, geology was already professionalized in Germany. Alexander von Humboldt,for example, began his career as an employee of the Prussian mines department. Women couldn’t get a foot in the door.
Things were more informal in Great Britain, where proto-geologists were more likely to be individual enthusiasts with the means to indulge their interests in the field. These men welcomed the participation of women who shared their interests and could assist them.
Etheldred Benett was an independently wealthy enthusiast whose connection into the world of British science was through her sister-in-law’s brother Aylmer Bourke Lambert, a botanist. She went on to correspond with everyone from the lowly-born and little known (at the time) William Smith to William Buckland, Dean of Westminster and fellow of the Royal Society.
By 1809, geologists were visiting her fossil collection.
In 1815, she presented to the Royal Society a cross-section of the Upper Chicksgrove quarry at Tisbury, in Wiltshire, that she had commissioned and produced.
In 1825 she also gave the Society a painting she had done of a meteorite that had landed in Ireland in 1813.
Her 1831 Catalogue was dedicated to George Bellas Greenough, first president of the Geological Society. In 1832, the current president, Sir Roderick Murchison, referred to her book in his 1832 address to the Geological Society.
During her last twenty years or so, Benett’s health failed. She had to pay collectors to go out into the field. When she died in 1845, most of her collection was bought by a Delaware physician and taken to America, where it has ended up in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. A smaller collection is also stored in Britain.
Mary Anning is more generally remembered by the general public, perhaps because of “she sells seashells by the sea shore.” But Etheldred Benett helped open the way for Mary and other women to participate in and help build the new scientific discipline of geology.
- Etheldred Benett (1776–1845). British Geologic Survey
- The first lady geologist, or collector par excellence? Cynthia V. Burek
- Benett, Etheldred (1775-1845). Geological Society of London
- The Roles of British and German Women in early 19th Century Paleontology: A Comparative Assessment. Martina Koelbl-Ebert et al.
- Etheldred Benett. Wikipedia