Dorothea Bate

Dorothea Bate was the consummate palaeontologist, zoologist and ornithologist, making a career of her science when women of her generation regarded it as a hobby. Resourceful and fearless, she explored the remote regions on the Mediterranean islands alone. She engaged with all the scientists she knew and quietly pioneered a new interdisciplinary science.

Portrait of Dorothea Bate

Dorothea Bate (1878-1951).

It became part of the Dorothea Bate legend that if archaeologists and prehistorians sent her sufficient quantities of bony fragments, she would give them a complete account not only of the fauna, but of the climate and environment as well.

Bate had an encyclopaedic knowledge of mammals and birds, from those that lived millions of years ago to more recent species from the last few thousand years. Using this knowledge, she could relate fauna, or animal life, to the environment and climate of the time. This laid the foundations of the science of archaeozoology.

Work

A wild youth

The young Dorothea Bate grew up in the countryside of Carmarthenshire, in South Wales, which nurtured her love of natural history.

Her education was based on pursuits like bird-watching, fishing, shooting and trapping of small mammals, and in her own words, ‘briefly interrupted by school’.

Aged only 19 she went to the Natural History Museum and demanded a job in the Bird Room. She impressed the Curator of Birds Richard Bowdler Sharpe so much with her skills, charm and personality that she became the first woman to be employed as a scientist in the Museum.

Exploring Wye Valley caves

In 1898 her family moved to the Wye Valley. Bate explored the caves high in the limestone cliffs above the river. The Wye Valley Cave, known also as Merlin’s Cave, can only be reached by a climb of 45m up a steep wooded slope and then by ladder to scale a 5m-high limestone cliff.

First fossil finds

In the Wye Valley she made her first palaeontological discoveries, 15 species of mammals and birds from the Pleistocene era dating back to the Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. Six of the mammals, including the pika and Norwegian lemming, are now extinct in Britain.

Encouraged by the palaeontologists in the Museum including the Keeper Dr Henry Woodward, she published her first report in the Geological Magazine. She was just 22.

Exploring the Mediterranean

Between 1901 and 1911 Bate explored the Mediterranean islands. In Cyprus and Crete she discovered tiny fossil elephants and hippopotami.

In Majorca she found a bizarre extinct goat-like antelope with rat-like teeth, a new species that she named Myotragus, as well as squirrel-sized dormice and giant tortoises.

In Cyprus, she collected more than 200 specimens of live species of birds, mammals, butterflies, beetles, mosquitoes and other insects. She sent all of these back to the Museum.

Island evolution

Her discoveries provided evidence of unusually large (gigantism) or small (dwarfism) animals on isolated islands. Large animals, in the confined environment of islands and with limited food, become smaller and stockier. Small mammals become larger due to lack of predators.

Intrepid explorer

Exploring alone, travelling with only local porters and guides for company, Bate faced dangers and braved considerable hardships and illnesses.

She searched the remote cliffs and mountains of Cyprus, Crete and the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain.

She kept diaries and notebooks with details of her explorations and extraordinary finds. These, and her letters home, show her character, her indomitable spirit, her capacity for fun and excitement, and the underlying dangers of working in inhospitable and war-torn regions. 

They also showed her humour and her pragmatism. At the front of her Crete diary, Bate wrote four rules, which served her well:

1. Blessed are those who expect nothing for they won’t be disappointed.

2. The Lord helps those who help themselves.

3. Never refuse a letter of introduction.

4. If you want a thing done well – do it yourself.

Palestine digs

From 1935 to 1937, Bate excavated an extraordinary hilltop site in Bethlehem. Pre-Pleistocene animals dating back more than 1.8 million years were found, including elephants, rhinoceros, giant tortoises and Hipparion, an early species of horse.

In 1929 the well-known archaeologist Dorothy Garrod had started excavations in the caves on Mount Carmel, sending material to Bate to examine and describe.

Bate joined Garrod for the final season in 1934. They found 52 different species including remains of pig, deer and gazelle. The results were published in 1937 as The Stone Age of Mount Carmel Vol I.

The most common species they found were the woodland Persian fallow deer, Dama mesopotamica, and Gazella, the desert-dwelling gazelle.

From these two species Bate put together a ‘census’ charting the changes in climate that occurred during the human occupation of the caves. Known as the Dama-Gazella graph it is still used by pre-historians and archaeologists of the region.

Wartime work

In September 1940 the Natural History Museum was bombed, causing considerable damage to the building. Casualties and the loss of specimens were small, but with the increasing risk of air-raids, as many of the collections as possible were evacuated.

They were taken to Tring, to the former private collection of Lionel Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild, which he gifted to the Museum in 1937. Bate went with them. During the war years, in the relative calm of the countryside, she had time to write and publish.

First official employment

In 1948 Bate was appointed Officer in Charge of the Tring Museum. For the first time in her life at nearly 70 and long after retirement age for most people, she was given official employment and managerial responsibility.

Until then, even with the title of Curator of Aves and Pleistocene Mammals, she was employed in a casual capacity and paid according to the number of fossils she prepared.

Unique expertise

Her unique expertise was in demand internationally. In 1947 Bate was invited to present a paper to the first Pan-African Congress in Nairobi, a gathering of the most notable archaeologists, palaeontologists and anthropologists of the time.

Legacy

By the end of her life, she had published more than 80 reports and reviews, and written at least 100 unpublished reports on individual collections. The Geological Society of London honoured her with the prestigious Wollaston Fund in 1940.

Bate died on 13 January 1951. Shortly before her death, she jotted down on a flimsy sheet of paper a list of ‘papers to write’. The last of these reads ‘On Pleistocene Mammals of Mediterranean Islands’. Against this she has written simply, ‘Swan Song’, sadly never completed.

Forgotten after death?

Despite her prominence in the scientific community in life, after death Bate was quickly forgotten, although her ideas lived on. Thanks to a recent biography based on her papers in the Museum Library, Bate has emerged from obscurity to the recognition she deserves.

Timeline

1878Born 8 November, Carmarthen, Wales.
1878Congress of Berlin
1881Natural History Museum collections move from Bloomsbury to South Kensington.
1897Visits the Museum and demands a job.
1899The Second Boer War begins
1900First palaeontological discoveries in the Wye Valley.
1901First scientific publication.
1901Queen Victoria dies.
1901-1902Travels in Cyprus.
1904Trip to Crete. Bate's sister Leila marries. Her parents demand she stay at home, which she does for the next five years.
1909-1911Two trips to the Balearic Islands - Majorca, Menorca and Ibiza.
1911Second trip to Majorca.
1912Titanic sinks.
1914Start of World War 1.
1918End of World War 1. Women get the vote.
1920British mandate for Palestine.
1924Appointed Curator of Aves and Pleistocene Mammals at the Museum.
1926General strike.
1928Women allowed to apply for permanent scientific posts at the Museum.
1929Wall Street crash.
1934Visits Malta, excavates at Tal Gnien. Discovers tiny shrews, a giant swan, a new species of vole and Leithia, and an extinct giant dormouse the size of a squirrel.
1934-7Excavations in Palestine.
1939World War 2 begins.
1940Awarded Wollaston Fund. Made Fellow of the Geological Society. Moves to Tring with Museum collections.
1947Attends the first Pan-African Congress in Nairobi, Kenya.
1948Appointed Officer in Charge at Tring.
1951Dies on 13 January from cancer in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex.