Isobel Bennett (1909 - 2008)

Four female researchers waving from deck of ship
Susan Ingham, Hope Macpherson, Mary Gillham and Isobel Bennett on Magga Dan, 1959.
Two female scientists with a male expeditioner on ship's deckMan on wharf farewelling four women on deck of shipBlack and white image of island coastline and bayPortrait of female scientist

Antarctic achievements

Isobel Bennett, one of Australia’s pioneering marine biologists, achieved a distinguished research record – despite the many barriers to women pursuing a career in science at that time.

In 1933, zoologist Professor William Dakin offered Bennett work as a research assistant. Dakin, with Bennett’s assistance, produced the first study of plankton in Australian waters. Her work involved primary research collecting and identifying specimens, and assisting with data collation. After Dakin died in 1950, Bennett edited and finished his seminal work, Australian Seashores.

In 1952, Bennett’s research on inter-tidal ecosystems led her to join the Danish research ship, Galathea, travelling the east coast of Australia – the sole woman aboard. As an associate professor at Stanford University, she lectured students on the schooner Te Vega, travelling the Pacific.

Bennett’s research had determined a geographic distribution of inter-tidal species according to climatic regions. While the cool temperate ecosystem of southern Australia had been researched, species in the cold temperate environment of Macquarie Island had yet to be studied.

Along with fellow scientist, Hope Macpherson, Bennett travelled to sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island with the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE), the first of four women to travel south with the program in 1959. Bennett’s experience in field-based research, hard work and dedication paved the way for others. Continuing her research, she would travel to Macquarie Island with ANARE again in 1960, 1964 and 1968.

Never really retiring from her work, in her lifetime Bennett mentored many of Australia’s leading marine biologists. She is best known for her ground-breaking work on the Great Barrier Reef marine ecosystem.

Awards and honours

Bennett received an Honorary Master of Science from Sydney University in 1962.

She authored a number of works including Fringe of the Sea, Shores of Macquarie Island, A Coral Reef Handbook, and fully revised editions of Australian Seashores. Three of her publications received the Royal Zoological Society’s Whitley Award.

In 1984, Bennett received the Order of Australia for services to marine biology.