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Isobel Bennett - Pioneering Marine Biologist

By: Elizabeth McKinnon, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 27 Nov 2013

As an intern with the Archives, I have been privileged to discover the amazing life and career of Marine Biologist, Isobel Bennett.

Mixed Marine Plankton

Peter Parks © Image Quest 3-D

The Great Depression – lucky for some

Isobel had a strangely fortuitous beginning to her scientific career by losing her job during the depression. At age 16, Isobel had to leave school to undertake a secretarial course to help support her family. She recounted that “in the 1920s it was the only thing a woman could do. That or nursing”. When her family moved from Brisbane to Sydney in 1928, she worked as a secretary at the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music. Like many during the Great Depression, she lost her job in 1932. With extra time on her hands, Isobel and her sister decided to take a 5 day P&O cruise on the new Straithaird ship. Good fortune smiled upon Isobel when in the cabin next to her was William John Dakin, a professor of Zoology at the University of Sydney, and his wife. The sisters befriended the couple and Isobel was offered a research position for the book he was writing about early whaling.

What amazes me about Isobel was her way of taking life’s every opportunity. Her temporary job with Professor Dakin and the Zoology department lasted nearly 40 years. During her time as Dakin’s assistant she undertook several aspects of secretarial work, but also aided him in his research. Isobel, due to her excellence at sea, became a regular crew member on the university’s research vessel, Thistle. Professor Dakin trained Isobel thoroughly in every aspect of his research, including the dissection of specimens captured on Thistle’s voyages. Isobel reflected, “The Professor then drew them. It was quite a task, but nobody could teach you; it is all a matter of practice, really. He gave me the microscope and the dissecting needles, and I just had to teach myself about that”.

Incredibly Isobel had no formal university qualifications. In 1935 she was allowed to attend the first year zoology practical lessons. In her only exam, Isobel passed with 98% and was disappointed at not gaining 100. She did not continue with the zoology classes as her responsibilities with Professor Dakin focused her attentions on marine biology. The Professor’s studies on plankton and the intertidal zone of the NSW coast are areas that defined Isobel’s later research and career. When looking back on her life, it is evident that Isobel chose, unlike many women of her time, to follow a scientific career. When considering her life, Isobel articulated, “I never married. Although there were several opportunities, it wasn’t the right man. Had I married I probably wouldn’t have been able to do many of the things I’ve done”.

Women in Science

What really captures me about Isobel is not just her incredible career, but the legacy she created for women pursuing science and academia. She was one of the first four women permitted on the Subantarctic Macquarie Island. She travelled on the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) vessel in 1959. Isobel wrote about this voyage saying that the women were “regarded with some suspicion. We had been warned that on our behaviour rested the future of our sex with regard to ANARE voyages”. Clearly Isobel and her feminine cohort were successful advocates for women in the field, as she authored the book Shores of Macquarie Island, and was recognised as the best non-scientific book available on the subject.

Outside of the world of science, Isobel lived through troubled times in Australian history, including the Great Depression and the World Wars. During the Second World War, Isobel was a part of the Women’s Land Army with her colleague from the CSIRO, Helen Turner. In an interview in 2000, Isobel recalled her time during the war with Helen:

We took students up to Penrith in the cold of the August vacations and camped in the boatshed by the river. They worked on dairy and fruit farms, which were very short of labour because of the war. On one weekend Helen and I ran the dairy, dead scared that we wouldn’t get the milk finished in time for it to be collected.

When looking back on Isobel Bennett’s life, having authored many notable books, published world renowned research and being awarded Honorary Master and Doctorates of science degrees, that she never completed a university qualification. Isobel fell into the world of science and followed her passions wherever they would take her. She was an inspirational woman, and as the Australian Marine Sciences Bulletin in 1995 noted, “Few eminent scientists in the world today would have begun their careers by accident, fewer still would have reached their positions without benefit of a university degree in their discipline, and it is certain that very few of those, if any, would have been women”.