Born in 1776, Miss Etheldred Benett is probably the first female geologist. She started studying and collecting fossils in about 1810, aged 23. Unlike Mary Anning, who earned her living through excavation and selling, Miss Benett was the eldest daughter of landed gentry who never married and devoted her life to the Earth Sciences. These two early palaeontologists show parallels with Darwin and Wallace.
Her specialty was the geology and fossils of the Wiltshire; she collected and catalogued many thousands of specimens. She observed and wrote to Gideon Mantell about the fossils in the context of their stratigraphy, her notes helping William Smith build up a picture of the landscape of Britain.
Miss Benett sent samples of the Wiltshire fossils to many collections and she was recognised as far afield as Russia. Tsar Alexander I, being back-footed by her unusual name (and probably not expecting ladies to be into that sort of thing) granted her an honorary doctorate in civil law from St Petersburg University. This kind of mix up was to be a constant niggle in her life.
She published her catalogue of the organic remains of the county of Wiltshire in 1831, naming and figuring several new species, including the sponge Polypothecia quicequeloba, which is part of the collection at Leeds Discovery Centre.
The majority of her collection is now housed at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
Torrens et al. (2000) ”Etheldred Benett of Wiltshire, England, the first lady geologist – her fossil collection in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and the rediscovery of “lost” specimens of Jurassic Trigoniidae (Mollusca, Bivalvia) with their soft anatomy preserved.” Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
Spamer et al. (1989) “Recovery of the Etheldred Benett Collection of Fossils Mostly from Jurassic Cretaceous Strata of Wiltshire, England, Analysis of the Taxonomic Nomenclature of Bennet (1831), and Notes and Figures of Type Specimens Contained in the Collection.” Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
Written by Heather Mikhail (@naturaliaurbana)
Edited and posted by Suzie (@suzie_birch)