Trail-blazing botanist and academic

Susan Payne

Margaret Jane Benson, c. 1911. Royal Holloway Archives and Special collections, ref RHC PH/282/13
Royal Holloway Archives and Special collections
Norton House, family home of the Benson family
Susan Payne

On a day in December 1904, Hertford resident Margaret Jane Benson, met fourteen other women outside Burlington House, London. This was the home of the Linnean Society and this day was momentous in its history: after years of campaigning, women were elected as Fellows for the first-time.

These outstanding female scientists included horticulturalists, ornithologists, biologists, and botanists including Margaret Jane Benson. Her Fellowship was awarded in honour of the contribution Benson had already made to her field by the age of 45.

Royal Holloway College

A decade earlier, in 1893 Benson had been appointed the Head of the new Botany Department at Royal Holloway College, the first woman in the country to hold such a senior position in the field. She travelled around Europe’s outstanding botanical laboratories, planning what was needed and stocking the botanical garden, herbarium, and museum. Benson is said to have worked with tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and wonderful dogged determination to establish botanical studies at the college on a solid foundation.1

Research

Benson’s research field was paleobotany, which is the study of fossilized plants. Techniques for cutting thin sections of fossils to see the complex, delicate structural features under a microscope, had recently been developed at the Jodrell Laboratory. She prepared her own specimens by working with a gas-powered cutting machine in a shed in the college grounds. Her research on the development of the seeds of earliest herbaceous plants was quickly recognised and her findings, published and incorporated into the textbooks.1

Early life

The Benson family moved to Norton House (10) West Street, Hertford when Margaret was 12, and this remained her family home for the rest of her life.2 Benson was tutored by her older sister Henrietta, her father William (a civil engineer) and her mother Edmunda (daughter of a landscape painter). This home-schooling was later supplemented with more general studies at Newnham College, Cambridge, and Bedford College, London. By the age of 20 Benson had clearly found the desire for further education, but needed to support herself while at university. So, for the next 7 years, she worked as an assistant teacher at Exeter High School to earn money.

At the age of 32, Benson gained a degree in botany with first class honours from University College London (UCL). At that time, she was already a senior lecturer at Royal Holloway College. From UCL, Benson returned to Newnham College to undertake postgraduate research into catkin-bearing plants, particularly birches; the study was later considered a classic3. In 1894, this research was submitted as part of her doctorate, making Benson the second woman to be awarded science doctorate degree in botany from UCL.4

Later career

Benson loved to travel. In the decade before the First World War, she collected botanical specimens from Australia, Java, and India.1 Benson described extinct plant species, making important theoretical links to help explain the evolution of seed-bearing plants.5

The honours continued to come to Benson: fellowship (1898), membership of the Faculty of Science (1903) and finally the title of professor (1912) by the University of London1.

Benson retired in 1922, aged 63 and returned to the family home in West Street. But she kept up fieldwork trips, writing for publication and maintaining her professional friendships. She died suddenly in June 1936 at the age of 76 at her sister’s home in Hampstead2 and was buried at All Saint’s Church, Hertford.6

 

References:

1 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Benson, Margaret Jane

2 Royal Holloway College, University of London. Royal Holloway: Professor Margaret Benson

3 Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. Celebrating the 230th anniversary of the Linnean Society of London: The first female Fellows

4 Herts Advertiser 25/08/1894 pg. 6, col. 7. Hertford – Lady Doctors

5 The Linnean Society of London. Celebrating the Linnean Society’s First Women Fellows

6 The Times 22/06/1936 pg. 16, col. 3. Miss Margaret Benson

 

This page was added on 24/04/2023.

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