Dorothea Bate: blue plaque for Natural History Museum's first woman scientist

‘Fearless’ self-taught archaezoologist travelled the world in search of fossils

Dorothea Bate
(Image credit: Natural History Museum London)

The first female scientist to work for the Natural History Museum is to be commemorated with a blue plaque in her hometown.

The plaque will be installed in a ceremony at Napier House in Carmarthen, south-west Wales, the childhood home of Dorothea Bate, an expert in the study of animal remains.

Born in 1878, Bate received little formal education but developed a passion for zoology, particularly the study of birds.

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Self-taught but full of confidence, at the age of 19 she travelled to the then-fledgling Natural History Museum in London. Undeterred by the fact that the museum employed no female scientists, she asked for a job in the Bird Room.

“Within an hour she was working at a sorting table, arranging bird skins into their respective species with assurance and skill,” Miles Russell writes in a review of a 2005 biography of Bate.

She would work for the museum for the rest of her life, becoming a pioneer in the emerging field of archaeozoology, the study of historical animal remains.

Her fossil-gathering expeditions “took her as far afield as Cyprus, Malta, Crete, China and Palestine,” says the BBC, and items she collected in her travels can still be seen in the museum’s cabinets.

“Partial to dynamite, and given to excavating through high fevers, her fearless collecting trips led to the discovery of many extinct Mediterranean island species,” writes paeleobiologist Tori Herridge on TrowelBlazers, a blog which celebrates the careers of pioneering female archaeologists.

In a time when it was still rare for a woman to travel alone, Bate’s solo treks to remote and inaccessible sites around the world won the admiration of her scientific contemporaries, according to her biographer, Karolyn Shindler.

Edith Hall, an American archaeologist who met Bate during an expedition to Crete in 1904, was among those struck by her courage and competence:

“She was one of the jolliest, most capable, and fearless girls I ever knew,” Hall wrote in a letter to her family.

During the Second World War, Bate worked at the National History Museum’s zoology hub in Tring, Hertfordshire, and was named officer-in-charge there in 1948. She died of a heart attack three years later, at the age of 72.

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