Advent calendar / Events / History

Door 5: The fossils of Etheldred Benett


The Geological Society Library & Archives has had a busy outreach programme this year, holding exhibitions and events in our London home of Burlington House.  Not everyone can visit us we know, so as a Christmas treat, here is a selection of treasures that were displayed which you may have missed.


March – June


Silhouette of Etheldred Benett, [c.1837]. One of only three known likenesses, made during a trip to Bath.

To mark International Women’s Day, 8 March 2016, the Geological Society hosted a special tour and exhibition showcasing a few of the pioneering activities of Etheldred Benett (1775-1845), who is recognised as the first female geologist.

The exhibition displayed a selection of material sent to the Society by Benett between 1813-1842, including a number of her fossils which had originally been given to the Society’s old Museum (and now held by BGS).

Etheldred Benett was born on 22 July 1775 at Pyt House, Tisbury, Wiltshire, the eldest daughter of the local squire Thomas Benett. Benett and her sister Anna Maria were encouraged to pursue the study of natural history by their brother-in-law, the botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert (1761–1842). Whilst her sister concentrated on botany, Benett took up the newly fashionable study of fossils. Unlike her near contemporary, the working class Mary Anning (1799-1847), Benett was a woman of independent wealth (she never married) who pursued the acquisition and study of fossils for her own interest.

Collecting locations
Most of her collection comprised Jurassic and Cretaceous specimens from her home county of Wiltshire but she also collected fossils from farther afield, notably during her holidays to the Dorset Coast. From at least 1809, people were recorded as visiting ‘Miss Benett’s collection’, and by 1810 she was engaging in correspondence with and sending material to other geologists and museums, including the Geological Society. The first recorded donation from her was in February 1813 when we received some ‘Siliceous petrifactions from Tisbury, Wiltshire’.

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Benett’s particular interest was the collection and study of fossil Alcyonia (sponges) which, according to her only publication ‘A Catalogue of Organic Remains of the County of Wiltshire’ (1831), Warminster apparently had in abundance, particularly to the west of the town.

Benett had hopes that she could encourage the male geological community to take an interest in her fossil sponges. However after patiently waiting a number of years and at least one of the three individuals she had in mind inconveniently dying, she took on the task herself. The genus Polypothecia had been used in a publication by J S Miller in 1822, but Benett was the first to use the name in a binomial combination.

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Benett’s lost collection
Benett’s scientific endeavours may pre-date the more famous Mary Anning by at least a decade, but she is lesser known due to the nature and fate of her famous collection.

Anning’s large and spectacular Jurassic reptiles can still be seen in the public museums around the country, but on Benett’s death on 11 January 1845, her collection was put up for auction and the majority of it was purchased by Thomas Bellerby Wilson (1807-1865). Wilson, an English expatriate living in Newark, Delaware, USA, spirited Benett’s collection away to America where he donated it to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1848. By the end of the 19th Century, her collection of modestly sized, handling specimens of English provincial strata was virtually forgotten. It would not be until the late 1980s that her collection began to be identified and Benett’s scientific reputation established once again.

Further information:
An online exhibition displaying some of Benett’s drawings and sections also sent to the Geological Society

Online archive of Library events

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Many thanks to Mike Howe & Louise Neep of the National Geological Repository (British Geological Survey), for arranging the loan of the specimens.

Spamer, E E and A E Bogan & H S Torrens, “Recovery of the Etheldred Benett Collection of fossils mostly from the Jurassic-Cretaceous strata of Wiltshire, England, analysis of the taxonomic nomenclature of Benett (1831), and notes and figures of type specimens contained in the collection”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of Philadelphia, vol 141 (1989), pp115-180.

Torrens, H S and E Benamy, E B Daeschler, E E Spamer & A E Bogan, “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 National Academy of Sciences of Philadelphia, vol 150 (2000), pp59-123.



2 thoughts on “Door 5: The fossils of Etheldred Benett

  1. Pingback: Door 18: The Tectonics of the Cold War | Geological Society of London blog

  2. Pingback: Door 20: Corrao-Hotham-Graham-Ferdinandea-Julia-Nerita-Sciacca Island (December) | Geological Society of London blog

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