Discovering Dorothea – The Life of the Pioneering Fossil-Hunter Dorothea Bate, by Karolyn Shindler
If you visited the Natural History Museum in 2005, the chances are that you have already met Dorothea Bate. Together with other scientific luminaries such as Mary Anning, Carl Linnaeus and William ‘Strata’ Smith, Bate was resurrected as part of an ongoing project to develop ‘gallery characters’ who could patrol display cases, share stories of their lives and discoveries, relate anecdotes and generally surprise members of the general public. It might be fair to say that few of visitors to the Museum had previously been aware of the existence of Dorothea Bate (and I must acknowledge my own failures in this respect), or of her contribution to the worlds of archaeology and palaeontology. To meet the ‘Bate facsimile’ in the NHM is one way to redress such shortcomings; to read Karolyn Shindler’s masterful book is quite another.
Shindler’s book is a good old-fashioned biography with none of the pseudo-intellectual musings that have bedeviled recent lengthy (and sometimes excessively wordy and dry) examinations of the great, the good and the downright obscure. Shindler does not drown the details of Bate’s life in pretentious and unnecessary theorising; neither does she use to the work in order to mask an alternative, stealth-diatribe on politics, religion or gender. Instead, Shindler presents the intriguing story of a ‘witty, acerbic, clever and courageous’ woman who worked in the exciting and not to say sometimes dangerous, world of the early 20th century scientific pioneer.
In 1898, aged 19, Dorothea Bate assailed the doors of the British Museum (Natural History), later the ‘Natural History Museum’ (NHM), at this time itself only 17 years old, to request that she be allowed to join the Department of Zoology and work in the Bird Room. In an age when science, especially the field of ornithology, was an almost exclusively male preserve, her request must have seemed preposterous. Bate was young, self taught and evidently full of enthusiasm and, within an hour she was working at a sorting table, arranging bird skins into their respective species ‘with assurance and skill’ (p 6). Thus began a relationship with the NHM that was to last half a century.
Shindler uses a variety of sources in order to convey life as an Edwardian scientist, though at times it feels as if there is one omission, namely the words and innermost thoughts of Dorothea Bate herself. Bate’s life is seen from a professional viewpoint, and very interesting it is for all that, but the absence of her own perspective, due in part to the loss of personal papers in a house fire shortly after her death, often means we are ultimately none the wiser with regard to the character of Dorothea Bate, nor of her motives and evident great strength of will and determination. Sadly there are also too few surviving photographs of Bate at work or in the field (and the absence of caption numbers for those that do appear makes textual referencing almost impossible), something which further adds to the mystery discovering the real Dorothea. Sometimes it is very difficult indeed to picture the real character at the heart of the story.
Any worry that an absence of useful information will create a work without interest or substance are, however, confidently put to rest by Shindler. Working from the surviving letters, accounts written by others (including Arthur Smith Woodward, Max Mallowan, Arthur Evans and Louis and Mary Leakey) as well as a veritable battery of academic reports, Shindler vividly brings life to Bate’s story, retracing her steps from youth to scientist of world renown.
Despite the absence of personal papers that could have provided an insight into the private thoughts and character of Dorothea Bate, Shindler manages to expertly convey the genuine ‘lost world’ that she inhabited. Readers will, I am sure, particularly enjoy the rich evocation of Late Victorian and Edwardian Society which, although only a century old, seems positively alien and unreal. Museum employees communicating via ‘speaking tubes’, magnificent architecture towering over disemboweled bird carcasses preserved with arsenic and camphor (ensuring that many curators suffered from arsenic poisoning), and above all the need to retain a sense of decorum and to dress appropriately, even to the point of donning a hat before crossing a corridor.
Correspondence taken from the archives of the NHM show that the Cathedral to Nature that was the NHM was not always a place of quiet research and contemplation, but a building which frequently reverberated with passion and high feeling. In a letter to the Museum Director, one curator observed that a member of his staff ‘has shown such persistent spite and malice during the past few years that it is allowable to believe that he is off his head, but a man who has done his best to ruin me in the eyes of my superior officer and the Trustees may be capable of anything such as mutilating the specimens or breaking eggs in order to get us into trouble’ (p 26). Fascinating stuff. How Dorothea Bate survived within this, predominantly male world of rivalry, competition, hatred and suspicion, one can only guess.
Shindler’s description of Bate’s life in the field, discovering new species in Cyprus, Malta, Majorca, Crete and Palestine, is similarly evocative, though nothing in the text can do justice to the full scale (and horror) of the ‘Bethlehem Pit’, as shown in the second black and white photographic section. Workmen wield shovels and picks in the uneven floor of what is, to all intents and purposes, a massive crater. Baskets of soil are conveyed along flimsy timber ladders and walkways, whilst all around the unshored edges bulge and crack. This truly was another world.
My only regret, and it is a minor (and perhaps rather personal) one at that, is that the Piltdown Man affair of 1912 is accorded so little time by Shindler. The discovery of a supposed early ancestor of the human race, the ‘Missing Link’ at Piltdown in West Sussex was the media event of 1912 with the Natural History Museum, thanks to the involvement of curator Arthur Smith Woodward, placed firmly at the epicentre. In 1953 the ‘discovery’ was of course exposed as a cruel and rather cynical hoax, and the media circus began again in order to flush out the perpetrator. The basics of this story are presented in Discovering Dorothea (p 199 – 202), sadly with the same ‘jury is still out’ conclusions with regard as to the authorship of the fraud. Hints of duplicity, suspicion and underhand behaviour within the ranks of the Natural History Museum staff are cited with Shindler musing and where in all this is Dorothea?’ (p 202). Where indeed? To be fair this is not a failure of Shindler’s research, which is meticulous, but of the absence of useful information concerning Bate’s personal life, her time at the Museum working with people like Arthur Smith Woodward and of her feelings towards her colleagues.
This is a fascinating account of a pioneering scientist who, although famous in life, has been largely overlooked in recent years. It is biography at its best. Engaging, intelligent and enthralling. A must for every Christmas list.
Review Submitted: November 2005
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