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She was born in Biddenham, Bedfordshire, the daughter of a clergyman. She was educated at Bedford High School and Newnham College, Cambridge (1891–1895), graduating in natural sciences. In 1896 she became assistant to Charles Lapworth at Mason Science College (which later became the University of Birmingham), and began the preparation of her best-known work, British Graptolites, with her college friend Gertrude Elles. She was particularly responsible for the illustrations. This monograph was to become a standard palaeontological reference work for many years. She published a number of other works and was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society in 1919. In 1920 she received the Murchison Medal for her work on the monograph.
In 1906 she received her DSc from the University of Birmingham, and shortly afterwards married Gilbert Arden Shakespear, a physics lecturer at the university. They had only one child, a daughter, but she died in infancy. During the First World War she devoted herself to helping disabled servicemen. She was honorary secretary of the Birmingham War Pensions Committee and from 1917 to 1926 sat on the Special Grants Committee of the Ministry of Pensions. She was appointed a justice of the peace for Birmingham in 1922, specialising in cases involving children and working-class girls. She was a family visitor for foster parents and invited many poor women and girls to stay in her home at Caldwell Hall, Upton Warren, Worcestershire.
Ethel Shakespear was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1918 for her war work and promoted to Dame Commander (DBE) in the 1920 civilian war honours.
She died of cancer in 1946, aged 74.
- Biography, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography