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date: 07 March 2021

Bate, Dorothea Minola Alicefree

(1878–1951)
  • Karolyn Shindler

Bate, Dorothea Minola Alice (1878–1951), palaeontologist, was born on 8 November 1878 at Napier House, Spilman Street, Carmarthen, the younger of two daughters and second child in the family of three of Henry Reginald Bate (d. 1921), a police superintendent and honorary army major, and Elizabeth Fraser Whitehill (d. 1929). Her education, she was heard to remark, was only briefly interrupted by school. She seems to have acquired her love of natural history from her childhood in the Carmarthen countryside. With very little formal education of any description, her obituaries recount how, at the age of seventeen, she arrived at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington and talked her way into a job sorting bird skins in the bird room at a time when there were no women employed by the museum. It was here and in the field that she learned ornithology and anatomy and, as her interests in fossil mammals and birds grew, palaeontology and geology.

Dorothea Bate was a woman of great charm and energy and over the next fifty years she became one of the outstanding personalities and scientists in the museum. For much of that time she was a volunteer, an unofficial scientific worker, paid piece-work according to the number of fossils she prepared, and often having to rely on public grants and the sale of her own fossils to fund her explorations abroad. Her maxims were long remembered in the Natural History Museum: remain very civil to people whom you do not like, never refuse a letter of introduction, and the Lord helps those who help themselves! A portrait of Dorothea Bate by her sister shows an authoritative looking young woman, dark hair swept up, wearing a gown of black with white lace trim and a large pink rose pinned to her splendid bosom. Her face is tilted up, the gaze direct, the chin expressing utter determination.

In 1901 Dorothea Bate published in the Geological Magazine her first scientific paper: 'A short account of a bone cave in the Carboniferous limestone of the Wye valley', in which she discussed her discovery of fossil bones of small mammals from the Pleistocene period. Her writing already showed her characteristic lucidity and command of her subject, and the piece also recorded her considerable physical courage: the cave discussed was half-way up a cliff face and so low inside that she was forced to crawl about it on hands and knees.

Even before her first article appeared, Dorothea Bate had left England to explore (on her own) bone caves in Cyprus which until then had not been systematically searched. She discovered twelve ossiferous cave deposits, five at Cape Pyla and seven on the southern slopes of the Kyrenia hills. She found first, in considerable quantity, fossil bones of dwarf hippopotami (H. minutus), but she was convinced there was a second 'beast'. In a letter of 4 February 1902 she desperately—and successfully—pleaded with the museum to secure her a grant from the Royal Society to enable her to continue her excavations. What she then found in a single cave deposit in the Kyrenia hills was her second beast. It was in fact a new species of dwarf elephant which she named Elephas cypriotes. She described these important finds in detailed papers which were subsequently presented to the Royal Society.

Dorothea Bate was in Cyprus for eighteen months, staying with the family of Clarence Wodehouse, commissioner for the district of Papho. There she led a life of contrast. One day she might be attending a ball at Government House, playing croquet and tennis, and taking tea with other members of the British community, the next she could be sleeping rough in a derelict shepherd's hut while out on a dig and being bitten to distraction by fleas. She travelled in remote areas, sometimes accompanied by only a guide and a man to dig, sometimes quite alone. On 21 November 1902 she wrote in her work diary, 'When I got back this evening heard that the old abbot of Chrysostomo had been murdered at 9am this morning—in the hummocks between Miamilia and the monastery—where I pass nearly every day' (Bate, Cyprus work diary, vol. 3). The entry for the following day is a laconic 'Did not like to go to Chrysostomo today'.

Bate also spent her time on the island observing and collecting mammals and birds, writing and publishing papers on her return. She left Cyprus in November 1902 when the Royal Society grant ran out, travelling deck class to economize, and was rescued from a night among sheep and pigs only by the kindness of the chief officer, who gave her his cabin. Her passion for mammalian palaeontology later took her to Crete, the Balearic Islands (where she discovered Myotragus, a unique species of antelope), Corsica, Sardinia, Malta, and Palestine, publishing numerous reports on their Pleistocene faunas. In the 1920s she was first consulted by the archaeologist Professor Dorothy Garrod and later joined her excavations in Palestine at Mount Carmel, publishing in 1937 her classic work, The Stone Age of Mount Carmel, volume 1, part 2: Palaeontology, the Fossil Fauna of the Wady el-Mughara Caves.

Dorothea Bate's interests extended from fossil ostriches in China, on which she collaborated with Percy R. Lowe, to the fossil fauna of the Sudan. Her unique breadth and depth of knowledge led to an almost insurmountable workload, for it was said that if sufficient quantities of fossil bones were sent to her she could identify, date, and source them, and tell the enquirer about the climate and environment as well. That was the heart of her approach. Her recognition of the importance of these studies made her a pioneer of the science of archaeozoology. Among the many archaeologists and anthropologists who found her expertise indispensable were John Desmond Clark, Gertrude Caton Thomson, Louis Leakey, and Charles McBurney. In 1940 she was awarded the Wollaston fund of the Geological Society for her work on mammalian palaeontology and made a fellow of the society.

In the early 1940s Dorothea Bate was transferred to the Natural History Museum's zoological branch at Tring in Hertfordshire and in 1948, at the age of sixty-nine, she was taken on to the permanent staff of the museum and appointed officer-in-charge at Tring (despite an official retirement age for staff of sixty). Her workload by now was such that she knew there was no longer time to do all she wanted, and her health was not good. Lying on her desk after she had left it for the last time was a scrap of paper headed 'Papers to write', the final one of which was to have been 'on Pleistocene Mammals of the Mediterranean Islands' which she had discovered so many years ago. In the margin by this heading she had written simply 'Swan Song'. She suffered from cancer but died on 13 January 1951 at 31 Ailsa Road, Essex, Westcliff-on-Sea, of a coronary thrombosis. She was a Christian Scientist and her wish was to be cremated.

Sources

  • W. N. Edwards, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 106 (1950), lvi–lviii
  • The Times (23 Jan 1951)
  • D. Bate, ‘Cyprus work diary’, 1901–2, vols. 1–3, NHM, palaeontology MSS
  • D. M. A. Bate, ‘Preliminary note on the discovery of a pigmy elephant in the Pleistocene of Cyprus’, PRS, 71 (1902–3), 498–501
  • D. M. A. Bate, ‘Further note on the remains of Elephas cypriotes from a cave-deposit in Cyprus’, PTRS, 197B (1905), 347–60
  • geology department account book, NHM, DF 102/9
  • minutes of trustees of the British Museum (natural history), 1934–51, NHM, DF 900
  • D. M. A. Bate, ‘A short account of a bone cave in the Carboniferous limestone of the Wye valley’, Geological Magazine, new ser., 4th decade, 8 (1901), 101–6
  • D. M. A. Bate to Henry Woodward, 4 Feb 1902, NHM, DF 100/34/77
  • letters from Dorothy Garrod to Dorothea Bate from 1926, NHM, DF 100/120
  • D. A. E. Garrod and D. M. A. Bate, The Stone Age of Mount Carmel, 1 (1937)
  • Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 96 (1940), lvi–lvii
  • memorandum to Miss D. M. A. Bate from T. Woodisse, 25 Aug 1948, NHM, zoological museum at Tring file, DF 1004
  • D. M. A. Bate, MS notes, Syria and Palestine, NHM
  • private information (2004)
  • b. cert.
  • b. cert. [Thomas Bate]
  • d. cert.
  • church history, First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston, Massachusetts

Archives

Likenesses

Wealth at Death

£15,369 6s. 1d.: probate, 5 April 1951, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Proceedings of the Royal Society of London
Natural History Museum, London, earth sciences library
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
Natural History Museum, London, archives