An oral history interview by Diana Wyndham
This article is taken from an interview I had with Isobel Bennett in January 1997 as part of the oral history project conducted by North Sydney's Stanton Library. These tapes (which also include a discussion of her family life and memories as a long-term resident of North Sydney) and the articles and books she has written are available at the Library.
Dr Bennett is an authority on Australian marine life and the ecology of the Great Barrier Reef. She joined the staff of the University of Sydney in 1933 as secretary to the Professor of Zoology, William J Dakin. She has participated in research projects around the world, including expeditions to the Antarctic base at Macquarie Island. In 1962 the University of Sydney awarded her an honorary Masters Degree in Science.
At the 52nd ANZAAS Congress in 1982 she was awarded the Mueller Medal and in 1984 she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia. She has had one genus, a coral reef and five species of marine animals named after her: a prawn at Tuggerah Lakes, a marine snail in Heron Island, a worm in Botany Bay and one in Macquarie Island, a genus of marine worms on Heron Island and a Barrier Reef coral. In 1985 she had the joy of being able to take aerial photographs of the eponymous coral reef in the Swain Reefs. In 1995 she received an honorary Doctorate in Science from the University of New South Wales. The following extracts are from the citation given when she received this award in 1995. It is from the Australian Marine Sciences Bulletin, April 1995, pages 7 and 8:
Few eminent scientists in the world today would have begun their careers by accident, fewer still would have reached their positions without benefit of a university degree in their discipline, and it is certain that very few of those, if any, would have been women. Isobel Bennett, despite what most would consider barriers, became one of Australia's foremost scientists through her combination of intelligence, curiosity, determination and capacity for hard work. ... In all of Isobel Bennett's work, three aspects stand out: the strong scientific basis of all her writings, her strong advocacy for a conservation ethic and the clarity of presentation in writing enhanced by her photographic skills. ... Isobel Bennett is a very generous woman with a strong sense of commitment to whatever she undertakes. Her energy and enthusiasm are quite remarkable. Now in her eighties, she has an intellectual vigour, a social conscience and a vitality and enjoyment of life which can only be envied.
Isobel Bennett was born on 9 July 1909 in Brisbane, the eldest of four children. Her mother died when she was about nine and the family moved to a small dairy farm on the outskirts of Brisbane. Her father remarried and in 1928 the family moved to Sydney where Isobel worked with the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music until the Depression forced its closure in 1932. That year the family bought land at Clareville (Pittwater) and built a holiday house there. They often went fishing in their launch and sailed a Jubilee Class yacht. After her father's death, the extended family moved in 1953 to Fairhaven, a historic house at 69 Carabella Street, Kirribilli and lived there until the late 1970s.
After losing her job in 1932, Isobel and her sister Jean went for a five-day cruise to Norfolk Island on the P & O Liner Straithaird. Their cabin was next door to Professor William Dakin and his wife (also a science graduate) who befriended the girls. As a result, Isobel did some casual research for Dakin at the Mitchell Library about whale sightings and in May 1933 was offered a temporary job at the University of Sydney which was to last for 39 years. She was nervous at first but Dakin was a good though demanding, teacher. In addition to her University work, she assisted Dakin with his weekly ABC public radio broadcasts on science which reached a very wide audience in the 1930s and 1940s. Dakin stressed then what has been accepted 60 years later — that scientists must become communicators.
She did the practical exam in first year Zoology and obtained results of 98%, a record. She had had to leave school at 16 and said, "probably, if I'd had academic status I would not have had the job I had". She added that Dakin gave her meticulous training. She comes from a very close-knit family and her sisters were tolerant and helpful. Her sister Phyll came on some field trips. Friends sometimes teased that she has had a wonderful life turning over rocks and going for walks on the beach.
In 1937 Isobel, with the Dakins and George Day, took a collapsible, flat-bottomed boat by pack horse from the Chalet at Charlotte's Pass to the Blue Lake near Mt Kosciusko. They carried out plankton work under extreme difficulty amidst Antarctic winds, eventually proving that there was some animal life in this deep alpine lake. Unfortunately, the Chalet burnt down the following year with the loss of all the gear, so this research stopped. Until the outbreak of World War II, most of their research work was marine. In 1943 she accompanied Dakin to Canberra (as his research assistant) where he was Technical Director of Camouflage in the Commonwealth Department of Home Security. Because they had lost so much time during the war, when they returned to the University, Dakin instructed her to stop working as a demonstrator for students and concentrate on research.
In September 1945 Dakin developed a serious illness which was intermittently troublesome until his death in 1950. Dakin had discovered that scientific surveys had been made of the South African coastline but none had been conducted in Australia. This was the start of Isobel's work collecting and listing the animals which she had found at low tide on various rock platforms and estuaries. She realised that the Australian Museum did not have lists of common species and had to compile them herself. Isobel and her colleagues did an ecological study of the whole of the NSW coastline using her basic lists.
In 1946, Isobel, Elizabeth Pope (from the Museum) and Helen Turner (from CSIRO's McMaster Laboratory) set off down the South Coast with a tiny grant and an old car. In 1947, with Dakin, they extended the survey to the Queensland border. They had tents and sleeping bags and, as part of the survey, were trying to find out what influence the climate has on the distribution of marine plants and animals. While Dakin was convalescing, he jotted down stories which became the basis of Australian Seashores which Angus and Robertson accepted for publication in 1948. While it did not appear until 1952, after Dakin's death, there have been many editions since then.
In the 1950s the survey (with the help of Elizabeth Pope and Hope Macpherson, Curator of Molluscs at the National Museum of Victoria) was extended to cover the Victorian and Tasmanian shores. Isobel received the Whitley Memorial Award for "Best Text" in 1987 for the last big edition of this classic which she produced by herself. She said that it was a major effort because many once common animals had become rare and she had to replace the black and white photos in colour and expand the original text to include all the temperate Australian shores.
From 1946 to 1947, after hearing that the Tuggerah Lake had been closed off from the ocean for two years, she and Dakin patiently studied the effects of this on the reproduction of prawns. They found that while most prawn species had to go to sea to reproduce, one of the three species in the Lake managed to reproduce itself without having to go to sea.
Her first Barrier Reef trip was to Hayman Island in 1946 and she "fell in love" with Heron Island during trips she did with students in the 1950s. The research station at Heron Island was opened in the mid-1950s. She had been to Low Isles (near Cairns) in 1954 and discussed the surveys made on the island in 1929–30, 1950s and 1970s. She became interested in photography while assisting Dakin, and after his death had to carefully take her own photographs, paying for the films. In 1982 she won Whitley Memorial Award for Best Photography for The Great Barrier Reef. With Dr Patricia Mather she edited the three printings of
A Coral Reef Handbook which in 1993 won the Whitley Memorial Award for Best Handbook.
In the 1950s she went (as the only woman with 113 Danish sailors) from Sydney to Adelaide whilst the Danish ship Galatea was on a round the world scientific expedition. In July 1954, Isobel and Hope went on a field trip aboard the SS Cape York. Fortunately, they were not injured by the rough seas or while scrambling over the barnacle-covered rocks. While on a year off on half pay in 1956, she lectured in the UK at the Marine Station in Plymouth and in London. She also lectured in the United States at Columbia and Yale Universities and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. It saddened her that not one of the staff asked a single thing about her trip when she returned to the University of Sydney.
Until the late 1950s, women were not allowed to travel to Antarctica. Finally four women got permission to go to Macquarie Island in December 1959 (Isobel, Dr Mary Gillham, Susan Ingham and Hope Macpherson). It was to be a five-day trip but because of bad weather it lasted for 15 days over Christmas. The team leader was "reasonable" and let the women stay ashore overnight. Working conditions were very difficult on their second trip because the conservative leader would not let the women sleep on shore.
In 1962, the year she received a standing ovation as she was awarded an Hon MSc, Isobel travelled as Dean of Women on a Stanford University research vessel meant for work off the Californian coast. It was equipped for deep sea work and sailed from San Diego to Singapore, as part of the International Indian Ocean Year. "I have always wanted to sail the South Seas on a two-masted schooner but never thought I'd be paid to do it". She had met Jean Edgecombe on trips in 1964 to Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island and they were co-authors of books about these islands. Other trips were pleasure and work — for instance she saw the reefs off Kenya which are in a poor state because of the pressure of population. She was also a specialist lecturer on several P & O South Seas cruises but unfortunately, while the trips themselves were interesting, the passengers seemed to prefer bridge and sunbathing. In 1965 and 1968 she went to Macquarie Island again and published Shores of Macquarie Island. Following her visit to the Pan Pacific Congress in Japan in 1966, another highlight was a 1967 return trip and having an audience with the Emperor of Japan (who was also a marine biologist). After her retirement in 1971 she made several more world trips: in 1972, 1975, 1980 and 1983.
Her greatest honour was receiving the Mueller Award in 1982, at ANZAAS Congress. She "had joined the immortals" in the company of Edgeworth David, Douglas Mawson, Howard Florey and Alexander Fleming and was only the second Australian woman to receive it. Dr Dorothy Hill, a geologist from Brisbane, was the first. In 1995 she received a D Sc from the University of NSW and made a trip by Qantas to the Antarctic, flying over Mawson's hut, the glaciers and Macquarie Island. The flight's Radio Officer contacted those at the Macquarie Island station who sent her greetings.
When asked for her views about conservation and the future she commented: "in the 1930s biology wasn't even a subject in the Leaving Certificate and Professor Dakin spent about four years fighting to have it included, finally succeeding in 1938. In the 1950s Australia did not have a marine station — despite Dakin's dream of one in Sydney it had not eventuated". When Isobel was growing up, ecology was a word she had never heard and it is only in the last 20 years that people have begun to be aware of the environment. She has become more optimistic in the last few years. There is an active group on the Peninsula (near her home on the Northern Beaches of Sydney), mainly because of the dedicated work of Mrs Cathy Hemery who leads Project Aware at the Environment Centre, Narrabeen. This group, which is now in its second or third year, trains volunteers who take people onto the rock platform telling them that creatures will die if rocks are turned over and left that way. In 1996 they won an Australia Beautiful award for the best educational project for the state. There is another group which has prepared a booklet for primary school children. Isobel, like Dakin, believes that it is most important to teach children about conservation from their earliest years and she is pleased to see that this is now happening.