Etheldred Benett

In 1836, the Natural History Society of Moscow awarded membership to an Englishman. Even better, Czar Nicholas I awarded the Englishman an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law from the University of St. Petersberg, after receiving an impressive selection of the gentleman's fossils.

There was just one problem. The distinguished Englishman was a woman.

Etheldred Benett had neither a feminine name nor avocation, so it's not surprising that, at a time when few women could participate in scientific societies, she should be mistaken for a man by foreign officials. But gentlemen geologists who cited her in their own books and papers often referred to her as Miss Benett, confident the colleagues would know exactly who they meant.

From Etheldred Benett (1775-1845)
Three pictures of Drepanites striatus, a type specimen in Benett's collection: a sketch by Benett in a letter to Mantell (A), a lithograph from her 1831 catalog (B) and a modern photograph (C). From "Recovery of the Etheldred Benett Collection" by Bogan and Torrens in Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Benett was born in 1775 or 1776, meaning she was old enough to be the mother of Mary Anning, the other notable female fossil collector of the age. But Benett had advantages Anning lacked, namely a well-connected family and independent wealth. Etheldred and her sister Anna both received encouragement from Aylmer Bourke Lambert, a geologist and botanist who was a family relative by marriage. Anna focused on plants while Etheldred focused on fossils. She never married, and lived most of her life in the family home in western Wiltshire. According to Deborah Cadbury, Benett's carriage was a common site near the county's good fossil localities.

Benett studied geology as well as fossils. She produced a stratigraphic section of Wiltshire's Upper Chicksgrove Quarry, and gave it to the Geological Society of London in 1815. She sent corrections to the Society a year later, though naturalist James Sowerby didn't credit her when he published the stratigraphic section. In fact, the strat section was published without her knowledge, and Benett disputed some of the conclusions Sowerby reached based on her research.

When it came to fossils, the collection Benett assembled proved to be a valuable resource for contemporary geologists and paleontologists. Anyone studying the region's rocks did well to visit her curiosity cabinet. It contained thousands of specimens from the Age of Reptiles, many of the fossils serving as type specimens for new species declarations. In a 1989 review of her collection, Arthur Bogen and Hugh Torrens observed that her collection had an impact on modern understanding of "Porifa, Coelenterata, Echinodermata, and molluscan classes Cephalopoda, Gastropoda, and Bivalvia."

In 1831, Benett published two catalogs of her fossil collection. Paleontologists eventually forgot the catalogs, and Benett herself probably underestimated their value. But because she had described some species new to science, paleontologists' collective amnesia about them led to some species-name priority disputes many years later. The second catalog she published contained specimen illustrations, and she experimented with the relatively new technology of lithography.

Benett was known partly for her fossil collection and geologizing, and partly for her correspondence with contemporary fossil lovers, including William Smith and Gideon Mantell. Benett and Mantell occasionally swapped fossils, and when Benett died in 1845, Mantell penned her obituary for the London Geological Journal.

After Benett's death, her fossil collection was split up and scattered across multiple museums in the United Kingdom — London, Leeds, Bristol among others. Some of her fossils found their way to the St. Petersburg Museum. The bulk of her collection was purchased by an American, Thomas Bellerby Wilson, and he relayed the fossils to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

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