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Benson, Margaret Janefree

  • Mary R. S. Creese

Margaret Jane Benson (1859–1936)

by Maull & Fox, c. 1911

by permission of the Linnean Society of London

Benson, Margaret Jane (1859–1936), botanist and palaeontologist, was born on 20 October 1859 in London, the sixth of the nine children of William Benson, architect and civil engineer, and his wife, Edmunda, daughter of landscape painter James Bourne. The family moved to Norton House, Hertford, in 1871.

Margaret received her early education at home, where she was tutored by her older sister Henrietta until she was able to continue on her own. Her father, long interested in natural history, gave her a thorough introduction to field botany, and her mother, a successful flower painter, taught her how to paint. When she was nineteen she spent a year at Newnham College, Cambridge, studying classics. She also took the Cambridge higher local examination, but before continuing her studies earned some necessary money by teaching for seven years as assistant mistress in Exeter high school.

Margaret entered University College, London, in 1887 and took a first-class BSc degree in botany in 1891. Supported by a Marion Kennedy research studentship (1892–3) she went on to postgraduate research under F. W. Oliver of University College. Her detailed investigation of the embryology of catkin-bearing plants, particularly birches, was carried out in part at Newnham College; the study was later considered a classic. She received a DSc (London) in 1894.

In 1893 Margaret was appointed head of the newly founded department of botany at Royal Holloway College (then a wholly female establishment) where she had already held the post of senior lecturer in botany and zoology for four years. From then until her retirement in 1922 she worked with tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and what has been described as wonderful dogged determination to establish botanical studies at the college on a solid foundation. To investigate the best in laboratory equipment she took a term's leave of absence in 1897, and, with her friend, the botanist Ethel Sargant, visited several outstanding European botanical laboratories including that of Eduard Strasburger in Bonn. She also began planning and stocking what became an excellent botanical garden as well as a museum and herbarium.

Margaret's research in palaeophytology, work involving the analysis and interpretation of complex sections of often tiny structural features, was inspired by the ongoing investigations of D. H. Scott of the Jodrell Laboratory. She began about 1902, when the technique of cutting fossil sections for microscopic examination was still in its infancy. Most of her slides she prepared herself, working at a small lapidary bench with a gas-powered cutting machine in a shed in the college grounds. Her detailed studies of spore-producing bodies and ovules in the seed ferns, among the earliest of the seed plants, were valued contributions to the understanding of the development of the seed habit, a key event in the evolution of plant life. Also especially notable were her investigations of early Palaeozoic herbaceous plants and some of the earliest of the true ferns. She was soon recognized as a very able palaeobotanist, and her findings, published in about twenty original papers, were quickly incorporated into the textbooks.

An enthusiastic traveller and collector, Margaret brought back much botanical material from frequent visits to Europe and the Middle East. She also collected on a visit to Australia in 1905–6 and on a trip to Australia, Java, and India in 1914–15. In 1912 the University of London recognized her research and the overall standing of her department by conferring on her the title of university professor. She had been elected a fellow of University College in 1898. In 1904, when, after four years of stalling, the Linnean Society opened its fellowship to women, she was one of the first fifteen admitted.

After retiring in 1922 to her family home in Hertford Margaret occupied herself with parish and domestic concerns, but also kept in touch with Royal Holloway College. Pleasant and genial, she was always a welcome visitor in the botany department. She returned briefly to technical work in 1932, urged by D. H. Scott to bring out some unpublished results. Her last contribution was made at the 1935 Botanical Congress in Amsterdam. She died at 32 Wood Lane, Highgate, Middlesex, on 20 June 1936 at the age of seventy-six. Funeral rites were at All Saints' Church, Hertford, on 23 June.


  • E. M. Blackwell, Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, 149th session (1936–7), 186–9
  • Nature, 138 (1936), 17
  • [A. B. White and others], eds., Newnham College register, 1871–1971, 2nd edn, 1 (1979), 64
  • D. H. Scott, Studies in fossil botany, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1908–9)
  • D. H. Scott, Studies in fossil botany, 3rd edn, 2 vols. (1920–23)
  • Chronica Botanica, 3 (1937), 159–60
  • The Times (22 June 1936)


  • Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, letters; papers


  • Maull & Fox, photograph, 1911, Linn. Soc. [see illus.]
  • A. de B. Footner, pencil and wash, 1927, Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey
  • engraved collotype, Linn. Soc.
  • photographs, Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey

Wealth at Death

£10,540 13s. 0d.: probate, 21 Dec 1936, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]