Pioneering scientist Dorothea Bate receives blue plaque recognition

7 December 2017

Blue plaque tribute to Dorothea Bate

The blue plaque tribute to Dorothea Bate on Napier House in Carmarthen © Dr Victoria Herridge

More than 60 years since her death, Museum scientist Dorothea Bate now has a blue plaque to honour her contributions to the field of palaeontology. 

Dorothea Minola Alice Bate, born in 1878, was a historically significant palaeontologist, ornithologist and zoologist. She spent 50 years working for the Natural History Museum and is credited as a trailblazer in the field of archaeozoology.

Bate was the first female scientist to be employed by the Natural History Museum, after she travelled to London and demanded a job in the Bird room - a significant achievement in a time when science was a profession dominated by men.

The scientist's Welsh origins have now been commemorated with a blue plaque to mark her birthplace - Napier House, on Spilman Street in Carmarthen, southwest Wales.

Blue plaques are widely recognised markers linking a significant individual or event to a location.

Bate's plaque reads, in both English and Welsh:

'Dorothea Bate
1878-1951
Palaeontologist and the first woman employed at the Natural History Museum, London, was born here.'

Commemorating a pioneer

Carmarthen Civic Society, who planned the dedication, invited Dr Victoria Herridge and Karolyn Shindler to the unveiling.

Dr Herridge is a palaeobiologist who worked with Bate's collections at the Museum in her study of dwarf elephants and mammoths. Shindler is an associate at the Museum's Library and has penned a biography on the life and work of the celebrated scientist. 

A side profile illustration of Dorothea Bate

Dorothea Bate was the first female scientist to be employed by the Natural History Museum
 

On the importance of the plaque, Dr Herridge says, 'It is recognition. It shows that someone has done something of value - even if you don't know who they are.

'It's going to represent the achievements of pioneering female scientist Dorothea Bate. Her work is still relevant to evolutionary biology today.

'It could be an inspiration to young girls that might walk past and see it.'

Bate spent part of her career exploring Mediterranean islands, uncovering interesting specimens in the process.

'She discovered two species of dwarf elephant and a bizarre, goat-like animal called Myotragus,' says Dr Herridge.

Her island discoveries showed evidence of gigantism and dwarfism. Gigantism is linked to a lack of natural predators, and dwarfism is the result of large animals shrinking in response to limited resources.

Bate is also noted for her work in the caves of Israel's Mount Carmel, where she worked with another well-known female scientist of the time, archaeologist Dorothy Garrod.

Bate faced a change of pace during the Second World War. Much of the Museum's collections were moved to Tring in Hertfordshire to avoid damage and loss from air raids in London. Bate went with the collections, and in 1948 she was employed as Officer in Charge at the Tring Museum

Skeleton of goat-like Myotragus

Bate is credited with the discovery of the goat-like Myotragus. It is thought to have lived until around 6000 years ago on the Balearic Islands.
 

By the end of her life, Bate had published 80 reports and reviews, in addition to another 100 unpublished works. She died on 13 January 1951, but her ideas and collections have lived on, inspiring and informing new generations of scientists.

Shindler's 2017 biography on Bate, Discovering Dorothea: The Pioneering Fossil-hunter Dorothea Bate, is based on the scientist's reports, letters and work diaries. It is now available through NHM Publishing.

The blue plaque unveiling event took place at Napier House in Carmarthen on 6 December 2017. 

  • by Emily Osterloff