Dorothea Bate: cave explorer and paleontologist.

dorothea bate

Dorothea Bate excavating in Bethlehem 1935.

During the 18th and 19th centuries women’s access to science was limited, and science was usually a ‘hobby’ for intelligent wealthy women. A good example is Barbara Hastings (1810–1858), 20th Baroness Grey de Ruthyn and Marchioness of Hastings. A special case was Mary Anning, ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew’. Scientists like William Buckland or Henry de la Beche owe their achievements to Mary’s work. Thanks to the pioneer work of these women, the 20th century saw the slow but firm advance of women from the periphery of science towards the center of it.

Dorothea Bate was one of these pioneer women. She was born in Carmarthen in South Wales in 1878.  She was one of the last generation of Victorians, and witnessed the significant challenge to traditional ideas about women’s submissive place within society. When Dorothea was 10 years old, her family moved to South Wales where she begins to collect insects, stones, fossils, ferns, and flowers. She also learned how to dissect birds and small mammals. Her first passion was ornithology, and when she was 19, she went to London and asked for a job at the British Museum. She was taken to the Bird Room. That was the beginning of her association with the British Museum that was to last for more than 50 years.

Dorothea Bate c. 1906, by her sister Leila Luddington.

Dorothea Bate drawing by her sister Leila Luddington (1906).

Her first paper , published by Henry Woodward in the Geological Magazine in 1901, was a report on the Wye valley fossils. In the paper, she describes the fossils of small rodents from the last ice age recovered from the “Merlin’s Cave”, a place particularly dangerous to reach. That same year, she embarked on the first of her pioneering explorations of the Mediterranean islands. She visited Cyprus and became the first paleontologist to search systematically the limestone caves of the island and discover its extinct fossil fauna. In 1904, she went to Crete, then the scene of spectacular archaeological discoveries. In Cyprus and Crete, Dorothea found the fossilized remains of dwarf elephant, Elephas cypriotes Bate and Elephas creticus Bate (Bate 1903, 1907).

In 1909, after a five-year hiatus resulting in part from her parents’ reluctance to allow her to travel abroad alone, she went to the Balearic Islands. Invited by her good friend the Reverend Robert Ashington Bullen, Dorothea started her journey in Mallorca, where she discovered and described a bizarre goat-antelope with rat-like teeth, which she named Myotragus balearicus. Between 1903 and 1914, Dorothea wrote more than 15 papers on her Mediterranean discoveries. Unfortunately, in the early 1900s, a woman could not be elected a fellow of a learned society, nor present her own paper, so Henry Woodward presented them for her.

Dorothea Bate in 1938 (Copyright Natural History Museum, London.)

Dorothea Bate in 1938 (Copyright Natural
History Museum, London.)

In 1924, although women remained ineligible for permanent staff positions, Dorothea was named Curator of Aves and Pleistocene Mammals. She worked at Mount Carmel with Cambridge archaeologist and prehistorian, Dorothy Garrod, in a pioneering work on the relationship between fauna, climate change and the environment. In 1940 she was awarded with the prestigious Wollaston Fund of the Geological Society. Shortly after, she was elected a Fellow of this Society. Eight years later, she was appointed Officer-in-Charge of the Tring Museum in Hertfordshire, an outpost where the Natural History Museum’s collections had been evacuated during World War Two.

Despite her delicate health, she continued working until her dead on 13 January 1951.


SHINDLER, K. (2007): A knowledge unique: the life of the pioneering explorer and palaeontologist, Dorothea Bate (1878-1951).

BUREK, C. V. & HIGGS, B. (eds) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281, 1–8. DOI: 10.1144/SP281.1.

Bate, D.M.A. 1914. On the Pleistocene ossiferous deposits of the Balearic islands. Geological Magazine, 6: 337-345.

Wyse Jackson, Patrick N.; Mary E. Spencer Jones (2007). “The quiet workforce: the various roles of women in geological and natural history museums during the early to mid-1900s”, Geological Society of London. pp. 97–113.