Benett, Etheldred (1776-1845)

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Benett, Etheldred (1776-1845)

English geologist

Etheldred Benett, arguably the first female geologist, was born in England in 1776, the same year the American Revolutionary War began. Benett lived in Wiltshire county, southern England, and contributed to the founding of biostratigraphy.

Benett's understanding of the context of fossils put her in touch with many of the famous geologists of the day. She corresponded with and met many, from Professor William Buckland at Oxford and the famous Sussex paleontologist, Gideon Mantell to Charles Lyell , founder of the principle of uniformitarianism, and William Smith , the father of stratigraphy and producer of the first map of Britain in 1815.

Benett's contributions to geology lie in four areas. First, she commissioned the first recorded measured section at the Upper Chicksgrove Quarry, Tisbury in Wiltshire. This was donated to the Geological Society of London Library and signed by her in 1815. Second, she was a recognized expert regarding fossil mollusks and sponges of Wiltshire, as attested to by her contributions to Sowerby's publication. Third, the Czar of Russia gave her a medal for her contribution to his fossil collection because he thought she was a man. She also received a Diploma of appointment as a member of the Imperial Natural History Society of Moscow to which she makes the comment in a letter, "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." The Latinized suffix "um" in her name implies that the sender thought she was male. Finally, she pushed forward the boundaries of biostratigraphy. Etheldred Benett published a classic volume in 1831, Organic Remains of the County of Wiltshire with extensive drawings, which she herself produced. She also contributed generously and extensively to Sowerby's Mineral Conchology (published in 1816). She gave the second highest number of specimens to this volume of any contributor.

Etheldred Benett never married, instead devoting her life to her fossil collection until she died at the age of 69. Her extensive collection of thousands of labeled Jurassic and Cretaceous fossils was thought to be so valuable a resource that when she died, most of her collection was bought by former Englishman and physician Thomas Wilson of Newark, Delaware; it then was taken to America. The collection was subsequently donated to the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science between 1848 and 1852. The collection contains some of the first fossil bivalves to have their soft parts preserved.

Etheldred Benett was, therefore, at the forefront of paleontology and biostratigraphy at a time when many people still assumed that fossils were deposited from catastrophic acts of religious significance (such as Noah's flood), and that scientific investigation should be left solely to men.

See also Fossil record; Fossils and fossilization; Historical geology