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ISOBEL BENNETT, AO
Marine Biologist. Born Brisbane 9 July 1909; died Mona Vale. 12 January 2008
from Nessy Allen
Isobel Bennett was called ‘the last of the
great naturalists’ by her colleagues. The sea was the focus of her life
and a continuing source of fascination; close to a lifetime of
meticulous observation is reflected in her work. She had three areas of
expertise. The first was plankton, a floating and often microscopic form
of animal and vegetable life which is the first link in the food chain.
The second was the ecology of the intertidal zone of Australia’s
temperate shores; Bennett was involved in the first study to be
undertaken in Australian waters and her work is acknowledged in the
introduction of the first published Australian text in this field. The
third was the Great Barrier Reef. Her perception was holistic and she
laid the emphasis from the beginning on that complex and fragile
interconnection of living forms which is the urgent concern of
Though achieving an eminence in her field which allowed her recently to be described as ‘one of Australia’s foremost marine scientists’, she had no formal qualifications and had never thought of becoming a scientist. The eldest of four children, she won a scholarship to a well respected girls’ school. Science was only available in the higher years, however, and at sixteen years of age, because of her family’s circumstances, it was necessary for her to leave school and go to a business college. In 1933 through a chance meeting with the Professor of Zoology at the University of Sydney she was offered a job as his secretary.
Within a short time she found herself acting as proofreader, research assistant and ‘official crew’ of the Department’s small boat which collected plankton at weekends. She quickly learned to sort the catches, dissect the appendages of the microscopic organisms and master the techniques of microscope sectioning. Next she began to collect specimens in the intertidal zone around the Sydney area; later this work extended to much of Australia’s vast temperate shoreline, resulting in one of her major works, Australian Seashores.
She even found herself helping students, and demonstrating to them during laboratory classes and building up a class collection of invertebrate animals. She accompanied them on all their field excursions, and, to give them some knowledge of the hundreds of species in a phylum, not just the particular one they were dissecting, she prepared a collection of coloured slides of representatives of the different groups within each species.
Her reputation grew and she was approached by a publisher to write a book; she decided to use her collection of photographs as its basis. Since her day was taken up by her University work, she wrote The Fringe of the Sea between the hours of 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., presenting it to her professor as a fait accompli who, she said, ‘got an awful shock’.
She became interested in the Great Barrier Reef in the mid 40s, and her knowledge of marine life became so valuable that in 1953 she was invited to join the University of Queensland expedition to Low Isles, to the north of Cairns, to take part in a complete ecological survey of the coral reef. This led to a commission to write a comprehensive study of the flora and fauna of the Reef. This was virtually an unexplored area, so she had to begin from scratch, even classifying the coral into families. Her book, The Great Barrier Reef, gave an overview of all sections of the Reef, with detailed accounts of the common species, both plants and animals, illustrated by colour photographs most of which she took herself. She was an excellent photographer, as people opening any of her books can discover for themselves. Bennett’s book is now recommended reading in more than one university department in Australia.
While working on the Reef, she did not neglect her other studies and in 1959 permission was granted for her to go to Macquarie Island, the only area in the Antarctic under Australia’s jurisdiction where she could continue her work on cold temperate animals in the intertidal zone. On this occasion she and three other women accompanied an Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition; she went three more times, the third and fourth visits being made at the request of the Antarctic Division of the Department of External Affairs. She is probably the only woman to have made four such voyages. The results of her work are recorded in her book, Shores of Macquarie Island.
Till the end of her life Bennett went on working. In fact, of her ten books, six were written after she retired. In order to bring Australian Seashores up to date, in 1986, at the age of 77 and mostly under taxing climatic conditions, she travelled the coasts of Southern Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, checking her faunal lists and replacing in colour all the black and white photographs of the original edition, thus completing the work which she began in the 1940s.
She was a very generous woman, with a strong sense of commitment to whatever she undertook. Her energy, her intellectual vigour, her vitality and enthusiasm were remarkable. Her social conscience dictated that she help form a University Women’s Land Army in 1940; she has helped the NSW State Fisheries Department with advice on the effects of sewage outfalls; she has given freely of her time and expertise to her local council.
Honours were showered on her. The one which pleased her most was the award in 1982 of the Mueller Medal by the Australia and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, for her contributions to marine biology in Australia; she was only the second woman to be so honoured. Twice the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales presented her with the Whitley Memorial Award for her books. One genus and five species of marine animals, as well as a coral reef, have been named after her. The University of Sydney bestowed on her its first honorary MSc degree; in 1984 she received the Order of Australia for her services to marine science and in 1995 the University of New South Wales conferred on her the award of DSc, honoris causa, ‘in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the science of marine biology’.
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