20th century, Science

Dorothea Bate: Paleontology Pioneer and Mistress of the Museum

By Claire Standley

You’d be forgiven for not recognising the name Dorothea Bate; an elusive figure of history, she is most likely to be remembered for her association with the Natural History Museum, as well as her frequent field trips to the Mediterranean. However, through recent biographical research, she has been rediscovered as a wholesome, spirited and above all determined woman who broke through many barriers to become the first woman ever to work at the Museum. Her unrecognised image hardly does her justice; Dorothea made several startling discoveries regarding the Pleistocene fauna of the Mediterranean basin, among other works, and, during her lifetime, was immensely well regarded in her professional contributions to palaeontology.

At the age of just 19, Dorothea made an extraordinary journey to London, presented herself to the Keeper of Ornithology at the British Museum (renamed the Natural History Museum in 1963) and demanded employment. Born in 1878 in Carmarthen, Wales, she had grown up exploring the countryside around her home; an interest encouraged by her father, an ex-army officer. It was he who taught her to shoot and how to preserve the animals that she caught. Although a sociable young woman, she preferred to work alone; a ‘modus operandi’ which would dominate her professional career. In 1898, news reports informed her of the new location of the British Museum (Natural History), an impressive Gothic-style building on Exhibition Road in South Kensington. Perhaps prompted by the news, she made her journey to London that year and, impressed with her self-taught proficiency, the Keeper duly took Dorothea on as a volunteer in the Bird Room.

In addition to her work in the Bird Room, Dorothea was expected to do palaeontological work, such as sorting and classifying the many fossil fragments that were collected by the Museum. This study of ancient life would eventually be the subject for which she is best known. In Dorothea’s time, palaeontology was an established discipline but not particularly prestigious; many practitioners chose to call themselves geologists, working under the auspices of the Department of Geology at the Museum. However, the avenues of research in palaeontology were growing at this time; Dorothea, with her experience of both fossilised and fresh forms of a variety of fauna, was perfectly placed to be included in a blossoming sub-group known as archaeozoology, which focused specifically on ancient animal forms. Dorothea used this opportunity to her advantage. It is worth noting that concepts which we now consider crucial to the study of natural history, were then just slowly being fully accepted. For example Darwin’s seminal work, On the Origin of Species had only been published 40 years previously. Also, the vast British Empire and the development of transportation opened up areas of the globe that had never before been excavated.

Dorothea managed to infiltrate a male-dominated work force of the Museum through a combination of skill, dedication and good fortune. A family contact in Cyprus allowed her to spend 18 months on the island, surveying pristine limestone caves. In them, she found remains of extraordinary animals, such as pygmy elephants and pygmy hippopotamuses, from which she was able to interpret in the context of historical climatic and geological conditions. These finds sparked a lifetime’s worth of work on the animals of the Pleistocene and, particularly, around the Mediterranean basin. Trips to Malta, the Balearics and Sardinia, among others, followed and, surprisingly for the time, always alone; her remarkable finds on these islands included the discovery of a unique species of prehistoric antelope on Majorca, for which she reconstructed an entire skeleton for display in the Museum. Within the Balearics themselves, virtually every article on the antelope, even to this present day, acknowledges her outstanding contribution to the natural history of the islands.

A notable exception to her preferred method of working alone was when the eminent anthropologist Professor Dorothy Garrod invited her to Israel, to assist in excavating prehistoric human settlements. There, despite the unstable political climate, she produced some of her finest and most enduring work, on the climate and fauna of this region, including the first known examples of domesticated animals in Palestine. Dorothea was famed for her expertise in identifying the context of the specimens she was given to analyse; with but a small fragment of fossilised bone, she could often skilfully deduce the species, location, age and climatic conditions that animal had experienced.

Despite this notoriety when she was alive, after her death in 1951 (honoured in obituaries in Nature and The Times), she rapidly slipped into obscurity. Her personal papers being destroyed in a house fire in 1954 ensured that she remained a mystical figure. Dorothea’s field notebooks have been lovingly preserved by the Natural History Museum but contain little of the personality behind such great discoveries.

Unfortunately, her legacy is also shrouded in some controversy; it could be argued that in some ways Dorothea’s methods reveal her as a relic of an unfashionable past. During her work in Crete, in cooperation with the archaeologists excavating evidence of the Minoan civilisation, many of her finds were removed from the island, being placed in British institutions. Nowadays, the principle of the sovereignty of the host country is paramount. Dorothea’s practices were simply a regrettable product of her time.

Despite this, her collections remain a valuable asset to the Museum, and many of her finds, such as the Majorcan antelope, are still vigorously debated and researched today. Furthermore, it was the efforts of scientists like her that led to Palaeontology becoming a department in its own right at the Natural History Museum, separate from Geology and Zoology. The renewed respect felt within the Natural History Museum for this remarkable woman in recent years is entirely justified. All that remains is for her legacy to be made more widely known among the public, so that others, male and female, can be inspired by the exuberance, dedication and professional energy that clearly drove Dorothea in her professional work.

Shindler. K Discovering Dorothea: The Life of the Pioneering Fossil-Hunter Dorothea Bate (London, 2005)

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