Etheldred Benett

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Etheldred Bennett
Born (1776-07-22)22 July 1776
Tisbury, Wiltshire
Died 11 January 1845(1845-01-11) (aged 68)
Norton House, Norton Bavant
Resting place Bavant Parish Church
Occupation Fossil collector · Geologist
Parent(s) Thomas Bennett (c. 1729–1797)
Catherine née Darrell d. 1790

Etheldred Benett (22 July 1776 – 11 January 1845) was an early English geologist. Her enthusiasm for characteristic history came to fruition as a result of her sibling's marriage to Lucy Lambert. Lucy's stepbrother, Aylmer Bourke Lambert, was an establishing individual from the Linnean Society (1788), a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Society of Arts (1791), and an individual from the Geological Society of London (1808).[1] She devoted much of her life to collecting and studying fossils of South West England and is often considered the 'first lady geologist.' She worked closely with many principal geologists of the time and her fossil collection played a part in the development of geology as a field of science. Discoverer of Iguanadon Gideon Mantell was so inspired by her work, he named a Cretaceous sponge after her. Ammonites benettianus is also named after her.[2]

Family life[edit]

Etheldred Benett was the eldest daughter of Thomas Benett (1729–1797) of Wiltshire and Catherine née Darell (d. 1790); her brother, John (1773–1852), was a member of Parliament for Wiltshire and later South Wiltshire from 1819 to1852. From 1802 she resided at Norton House in Norton Bavant, near Warminster, in Wiltshire, and from at least 1809 until her death, devoted herself to collecting and studying the fossils of her native county. Etheldred's interest in geology was encouraged by her sister in-law's half brother, the botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert.[1][3] It was through Lambert, that Bennett developed relationships with many leading geologists of the time and it is only through works by these men, that most reference to her work was made. Bennett was unmarried and financially independent, and so was able to dedicate much of her life to the developing field of science and geology through the collection and study of fossils.

Fossil collection[edit]

Her speciality was in the Middle Cretaceous Upper Greenland in the Vale of Wardour and her collection was one of the largest and most diverse of its time resulting in many visitors to her home. Some fossils within her collection were the first to be illustrated and described whilst some were extremely rare or incredibly well preserved.[2] Bennett had contact with many authors of fossil works including the Sowerbys. Forty-one of her specimens were included in Sowerby's Mineral Conchology, a major fossil reference work, which was the second highest number of contributed fossils in which many were the best quality available at the time.[2] After seeing part of her collection, and assuming she was male, Tsar Nicholas I granted her a Doctorate of Civil Law from the University of St Petersberg at a time when women were not admitted into higher education institutions.[1] As an early female geologist and as a response to her honorary doctorate, Bennett noted 'that scientific people in general have a very low opinion of the abilities of my sex.[1]

Most of her fossil collection is currently housed at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia after purchase by Thomas Bellerby Wilson though small parts are in many British museums, in particular Leeds City Museum and possibly even in St. Petersburg; it contains many type specimens and some of the first fossils found (and recognized though shortly after her death) with the soft tissues preserved.[4]

Bennett also had an interest in conchology and as well as her fossil collection, spent time collecting and detailing shells, many of which were new records. In a letter to Mantell in 1817, she claimed her shell collecting had left her with no time to look at his fossils.[2]


Her unusual first name had many confused into thinking that she was a man. This mistake was detected when the Natural History Society of Moscow awarded membership to her under the name of Master Etheldredus Benett in 1836. [5] This was evident once again when she was granted the Doctorate of Civil Law by Tsar Nicholas I. This Doctorate was given to her from the University of St Petersburg at a time when women were not allowed to be accepted into higher institutions. [6]

Contribution to geology and palaeontology[edit]

Benett corresponded extensively with fellow geologists such as George Bellas Greenough, first president of the Geological Society, Gideon Mantell, William Buckland, and Samuel Woodward. On exchanging numerous fossils with Mantell, a thorough understanding of the Lower Cretaceous sedimentary rocks of Southern England was reached.[2]

Her work was recognised and appreciated by notable individuals of the time. Gideon Mantell described her as 'A lady of great talent and indefatigable research,'[2] whilst the Sowerbys note her 'labours in the pursuit of geological information have been as useful as they have been incessant.'

Benett produced the first measured sections of the Upper Chicksgrove quarry near Tisbury. However, much to her annoyance, it was published by Sowerby without her permission.[1] As a result of her extensive collection, she wrote and privately published a monograph, A Catalogue of the Organic Remains of the County of Wiltshire (1831) which contains many of her drawings of and sketches of mollusca and sponges and was widely distributed.[1]

Later life[edit]

Illness during the last twenty years of Bennet's life meant she spent less time collecting specimens and instead commissioned local collectors. After spending 34 years gathering what was the most extensive collection of Wiltshire fossils, Bennett died at her home Norton House at the age of 69, two years before fellow fossil collector Mary Anning. Her fossil collection was later sold to physician Thomas Wilson of Newark, Delaware, who donated the collection to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia .[1]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Burek, Cynthia V (2001). "The first lady geologist, or collector par excellence?". Geology Today. 17 (5): 192–194. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2451.2001.00008.x. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Cleevely, R J (2004). "Miss Etherldred Bennett (1775-1845): A Preliminary Note on her Correspondence". Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine. 97: 25–34. 
  3. ^ Torrens, H. S. (May 2009). "Bennett, Etheldred (1775–1845)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2010-10-09. 
  4. ^ Torrens, Hugh S.; Benamy, Elana; Daeschler, Edward B.; Spamer, Earle E.; Bogan, Arthur E. (2000), 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 Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 150, pp. 59–123, JSTOR 4065063, 2010-10-09 
  5. ^ N/A, N/A. "Etheldred Benett (1775-1845)". The Geological Society. Geological Society of LOndon. Retrieved 1 November 2016. 
  6. ^ SARAH. "The road to Fellowship – the history of women and the Geological Society". Geological Society of London. Retrieved 2 November 2016. 


  • Spamer, Earle E.; Bogan, Arthur E.; Torrens, Hugh S. (1989). "Recovery of the Etheldred Benett Collection of fossils mostly from 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 Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. 141. pp. 115–180. JSTOR 4064955. 

Further reading[edit]