Philobiblon: Book Review: Discovering Dorothea

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Book Review: Discovering Dorothea

Should you happen to be at the Natural History Museum in London on Sunday, you might bump into Dorothea Bate, or at least the actress who plays her.

This is fame, or at least something like it, and a well-deserved place in the public eye for a wonderful woman, a pioneering scientist, an intrepid explorer and original thinker who, like so many women before and after her, very nearly slipped from history.

Miss Bate might well have said that her real life began on May 1, 1901, when the gently raised Englishwoman - just 20 years old - set foot on the soil of Cyprus, in the port of Larnaca. There, like all of the other passengers, she was carried ashore on the back of a porter - there were no other landing facilities.

Yet this was to be but a minor discomfort in the range of her adventures. For she was here, alone, with £2-worth of palaentological and zoological collecting equipment loaned by the Museum, inadequate finances, and the intention of exploring the previously untouched limestone caves suspected to be rich in fossils. Yet even their location was unknown. She would brave bandits, illness, unsanitary, uncomfortable accommodation and even sometimes lack of food in a singleminded pursuit of her goal.

Miss Bate had knowledge - at least of the fossils of England, and those to be found in the great collection of the Museum, which she had invaded, demanding employment at the age of just 17, without formal education, but already with burning interest. But 50 years later, when at the age of 69 she was made "Officer in Charge" of the museum's still important annexe at Tring (having been until then, despite decades of labour, only an unofficial scientific worker paid piecework rates) she must have looked back and smiled at the enthusiasm of her young self, and wondered at her self-confidence. Certainly that's what I felt reading Discovering Dorothea, Karolyn Shindler's new biography.

In the years in between, Miss Bate had established a new field of study - the special processes of evolution on islands - and found and identified scores of new species, including the pygmy elephant and pygmy hippo of Cyprus that she thought (as would a more recent author) was the origin of the Greek cyclops myth.

In purely scientific terms, perhaps her most important single discovery was the curious Myotragus, the goat-like antelope she found in Majorca and Menorca. In later work in what was then Palestine, she made pioneering steps in trying to understand how changes of climate could be mapped by changes in the fossil record. On this work there are plentiful, if often technical records, in the papers retained by the Museum.

What Shindler has been able to find out about Dorothea's life is almost entirely professional, her private papers having been being destroyed in a house fire soon after her death. (You can't but wonder if, had she been a man, better, public, efforts would not have been made to secure them.)

One reviewer complained that as a result,the biography resembles "not so much something from the 1970s as the 1870s, in which it was assumed that a man - and it was generally a man - could be read from the sum total of his public actions". And certainly, sometimes it feels as though the biographer is scrabbling hopelessly in a great pile of scree in search of a sign of bone.

When Miss Bate was working on Cyprus, aged 22, Jack Wodehouse, 19, a family friend joined many of her expeditions, not previously having shown any enthusiasm for biological subjects. But in the work notebooks he appears purely as a member of the expeditions. And after he left, the surviving diaries never mention him again. Shindler concludes that on this, as a couple of other similar occasions, it is simply now impossible to know what, if anything, was going on.

Yet while some might find this a weakness of the biography, I can't but feel that this is how Miss Bate might have liked it. She was, after all, a Victorian and a late Victorian at that. And she was as singleminded about her work as her social and family obligations would allow. If she was occasionally also distracted by other personal matters, she might have been entirely happy to have that struck from the historical record.

It is an interesting question for biographers; if you come across information you know your subject would not have wanted known to posterity, what should you do with it? I'm almost glad that Shindler didn't have to face this question. Dorothea Bate, explorer and pioneering palaentologist, will do for me.

There's another review here.


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