Dorothea Bate illustration

Dorothea Bate was one of the first women to be employed as a scientist by the Natural History Museum.

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Dorothea Bate: a Natural History Museum pioneer

Dorothea Bate had no formal qualifications when she travelled to the Natural History Museum in London to demand a job.

But more than 60 years since her death, her fossil mammal discoveries and work in archaeozoology are still relevant and revered.

Dorothea Minola Alice Bate (1878-1951) was a palaeontologist who is internationally recognised for her expertise in fossil mammals.

She was one of the first female scientists employed at the Museum, and her decades of discoveries in the Mediterranean and Near East left a significant scientific legacy that is still relevant today.

But it was not always easy for Dorothea, as was the case for many women dedicated to science at a time when the field was overwhelmingly male.

Unofficially employed

In 1898, 19-year-old Dorothea travelled to the Natural History Museum in London and talked her way into a job.

The Museum had virtually no women scientists at the time. In fact, women were not permitted to become official members of the scientific staff until 1928. 

A staff photograph of the Natural History Museum's Geology department in 1938

The Museum's Geology department in 1938. Dorothea is seated in the front row on the right.

But the curator of birds, Richard Bowdler Sharpe, offered Dorothea a role. Whether through charm or talent - or likely both - she was allowed into the Bird Room, where she sorted bird skins into species.

Her employment was unofficial, and she was only paid for piecework, meaning by the number of specimens she prepared.

Her arrival at the Museum brought her into contact with other scientists, however, and sparked a life of adventure and a flourishing career.

The life of a fossil mammal expert

Dorothea's first fossil discoveries were made in the caves of the cliffs above the River Wye. She uncovered 15 species of mammals and birds dating back around 10,000 years to the Pleistocene Period.

Encouraged by fellow Museum palaeontologists, Dorothea published her first report on her findings in Geological Magazine at the age of 22.

Between 1901 and 1911, she explored the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus, Crete and the Balearics, discovering numerous fossil remains of extinct species. Many of them were new to science.

Some of these finds show evidence of island gigantism and dwarfism - when animals grow to unusually large or small sizes due to their isolated homes. Dorothea uncovered squirrel-sized dormice, tiny elephant and mammoth fossils and a strange, goat-like antelope, which she named Myotragus

A skeleton of the goat-like antelope Myotragus, first discovered by Dorothea Bate

One of Dorothea's findings on the Balearic islands was Myotragus, an extinct goat-like antelope that lived around 6,000 years ago.

She travelled alone, hiring local men as guides and interpreters, and to do the heavy digging. If the rock proved too hard to dig through, she resorted to blowing it up with gunpowder or dynamite - both methods being acceptable at the time.

On her travels in the Mediterranean she collected more than 200 specimens of living bird, mammal and insect species, all of which she sent back to the Museum to add to the collections.

In the following years, Dorothea became internationally renowned for her expertise on fossil mammals.

Dorothea meets Dorothy

In 1929, archaeologist Prof Dorothy Garrod began excavations in the Wadi el-Mughara Caves of Mount Carmel, a mountain range in northern Israel.

She sent specimens for Dorothea to examine and describe, and in the 1930s she joined Dorothy for the site's final season.

The pair went on to discover 54 different species, including pigs, deer and gazelles. The most common species found were the Persian fallow-deer Dama mesopotamica and the desert-dwelling gazelle, Gazella.

From these two species, Dorothea was able to chart changes in climate that would have occurred during the human occupation of the Wadi el-Mughara Caves. 

A portrait photograph of archaeologist Dorothy Garrod

Dorothea joined archaeologist Dorothy Garrod for the excavations of the caves of Mount Carmel, Israel © Newnham College, Cambridge / Wikimedia Commons

Dorothea's work on the remains found there paved the way for the field of archaeozoology (zooarchaeology), the study of faunal remains to answer questions on historical ecology.

A roadblock in Bethlehem

From 1935 to 1937, Dorothea excavated a hilltop site in Bethlehem, uncovering animals from the pre-Pleistocene. The fossils dated back 1.8 million years and included elephants, rhinoceroses, giant tortoises, and the early horse Hipparion.

Dorothea's attention was turned to Bethlehem in 1934, when the Palestinian Department of Antiquities asked her to examine a collection of fossil bone fragments. She identified the finds as being from an extinct elephant species - the first to be discovered in Palestine.

Dorothea described the first finding at the site, but the land had been claimed by British archaeologist James Starkey. To retain her stake in the research, she had to collaborate. She excavated alongside fellow female scientist Elinor Gardner, with Starkey heading the operation. 

A dwarf elephant tooth found in Cyprus by Dorothea Bate

This dwarf elephant tooth discovered by Dorothea was one of the first pieces of evidence that miniature elephants once lived on Cyprus. The tooth is between 10,000 and 800,000 years old.

Their work in Bethlehem was cut short when Starkey was shot and killed in 1938, on his way to the opening of the Palestinian Museum of Archaeology (now the Rockefeller Museum). An armed group had accused him of being Jewish.

After this, the Museum refused to grant Dorothea permission to travel as the region was too unsettled and the Second World War was brewing.

Today the region is still unstable, and the original site built over. The work that Dorothea undertook in the 1930s remains the only insight into life in the Bethlehem region 2.5 million years ago.

Back to the Museum

Historians disagree on whether Dorothea ever became an official member of staff at the Museum, though we know that in 1924 she was appointed curator of Ice Age birds and mammals.

After having moved with much of the collection to the Museum's zoological sister site in Hertfordshire during the Second World War, the palaeontologist was formally appointed Officer in Charge at Tring Museum.

The Museum suffered considerable damage during the Second World War. Much of the collection was moved out of London, away from devestating air raids.

By the end of her life, Bate had published 80 reports and reviews, plus another 100 unpublished works.

She died on 13 January 1951, but her ideas, writing and collections have lived on, inspiring and informing new generations of scientists.

Over 60 years since her death, in December 2017 Dorothea's life and work was celebrated with the installation of a prestigious blue plaque on her birthplace, Napier House in Carmarthen, southwest Wales.

The plaque, planned by the Carmarthen Civic Society, is dedicated to her groundbreaking work in the field of palaeontology. 

Since 2016, the Insular Directorate of Equality in Mallorca have been working with the aim of 'recovering from oblivion women who have left their mark'. In December 2018, a bust of Dorothea was unveiled in on the island, which recognises her discovery of Myotragus.