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A catalogue of the organic remains of the county of Wiltshire by Etheldred Benett. 1831


Geoscientist 21.06 July 2011

Thought by many to be the first woman geologist, Etheldred Benett (1776-1845) was a keen collector of fossils, assembling in the years 1810-13 an extensive collection from a range of sites within her native county of Wiltshire. Her only major publication, Catalogue of the Organic Remains of the County of Wiltshire, with drawings by E D Smith, illustrates both the sheer number and extreme variety of fossils she discovered.

Benett was accustomed to the prejudices faced by women in male-dominated society: while her work was admired by eminent geologists like Gideon Mantell and George Bellas Greenough, she remained isolated professionally, unable to join the scientific societies to which they belonged. In the Preface to County of Wiltshire she haughtily attests to this situation, stating: “when I mention that [the book] has been approved by Mr Greenough, it will run no risk of being despised in the Geological World”.

For a modern reader, it is clear that no such approval is needed: Benett’s introduction alone indicates the thoroughness with which she examined the geology of Wiltshire and the accuracy with which she documented her discoveries. It also hints at the professional pleasure she took in bringing those discoveries to light.
  • Further reading: Burek, C.V. & Higgs, B (eds) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publication, 281 (2007).
  • The Library operates a sponsorship scheme to help preserve and restore its rare books. For more information, contact Michael McKimm in the library, or see the Sponsor A Book page on the Society’s website: