Isobel Bennett was an accomplished Marine Biologist, who generously left her papers to the archives of the Australian Museum.
Life before science
Isobel was born in Brisbane in 1909, the eldest of four. She won a scholarship to a respected girl’s school, Somerville House, however had to leave at age 16 due to the family’s financial circumstances. Isobel undertook a secretarial course, and as she later recalled, “In the 1920s it was the only thing a woman could do. That or nursing”. In 1928 the family moved to Sydney where she found work as a secretary at the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music. During the depression in late 1932, her employer was forced out of business and left her without a job. 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 hers 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.
Once back in Sydney, Isobel spent 2-3 days a week at the Mitchell Library researching captain’s logs of early whaling ships. Her task was to understand the distribution of whales on the Australian and New Zealand coasts. In 1933 the University of Sydney’s Department of Zoology offered her a temporary job under Professor Dakin’s supervision. Isobel later recounted that when offered the job she had to look up the word “zoology” in the dictionary. In this position she became Dakin’s secretary, proof reader, research assistant and a member of the crew on the university’s research vessel, Thistle. Isobel humorously described in 1994 that “I was put on in a temporary capacity and stayed for 39 years”.
"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."
In 1935 Isobel was allowed to attend the first year zoology practical lessons, the only formal training she ever completed. 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.
Isobel collaborated with Dakin in much of his research most notably his book Australian Seashores. The book did not appear on store shelves until 1952, 2 years after the Professor’s death. Isobel took it upon herself to finish the book, complete with indexes and photographs. In its first printing of 3500 copies, it was sold out within a few short weeks. Australian Seashores was reprinted, revised and metricated another 12 times over the years. Isobel had to update the book with current taxonomic work and scientific names. In 1986 she was approached to produce a completely revised edition to cover all of the Australian States and replace the black and white images with colour. Isobel wrote to a colleague when approached that “I was so appalled at the enormity of the task, especially at my age (now 83), that I refused point blank”. However she did take up and complete the task making Australian Seashores completely her own.
"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." (Australian Marine Sciences Bulletin, April 1995, 7/8.)
In 1953 Isobel participated in an expedition to the Great Barrier Reef and her enthusiasm for corals was awakened. She went to the Reef at every available opportunity, often working alone and at her own expense. Over time her research amazingly covered the full 2000km span of the Reef. Isobel’s work on the Reef was fundamental in its 1980 recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Isobel was one of the first four women permitted on the Subantarctic Macquarie Island. She travelled to the island on the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ARARE) 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”. As a result of the voyage, Isobel authored the book Shores of Macquarie Island and was recognised as the best non-scientific book available on the subject.
Isobel had a well travelled career, visiting universities and marine stations all over the world. She gave lectures and spoke at several scientific congresses. In 1962 she was awarded an honorary Master of Science Degree by the University of Sydney. In 1982 she was awarded the ANZAAS Mueller Medal, as well as the Whitely Memorial Award from the Royal Zoological Society of NSW. For her services to marine biology, Isobel was awarded Officer of the Order of Australia. In 1995 she was further recognised for her work with an Honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Sydney.
Isobel had a very different life to her contemporaries and left a lasting impact on Australian marine biology. She died in 2008 at age 98. Isobel left a legacy not only to marine biology, but an awareness of the ecological stresses on our seashores. She reflected on her life saying, “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”.