Story: Benham, William Blaxland

Page 1 - Biography

Benham, William Blaxland

1860–1950

Zoologist

This biography was written by John Morton and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

William Blaxland Benham was born in Isleworth, Middlesex, England, on 29 March 1860, the sixth of seven children of Ebenezer (Edward) Benham and his wife, Mary Ann Shoppee. Ebenezer was a prosperous solicitor and the family home had three acres of grounds. William had a secure childhood, going from private preparatory schooling to Marlborough College in 1874. He left in 1876 with good Classics, some rudiments of science, and extra subjects (including drawing) for engineering. But at University College, London, which he attended from 1879, the renowned Sir Ray Lankester drew Benham to what was to be a lifetime interest in zoology. He graduated BSc in 1883 and DSc in 1887.

Benham was appointed professor of biology at Bedford College for Women, London, in 1886. In that year he began his classic foundation studies of earthworm microstructure, and over the next 12 years he wrote some 40 wide-ranging papers. When Lankester took up a chair at Oxford in 1890 the young Benham accompanied him as Aldrichian demonstrator in comparative anatomy, while keeping his lectureship at Bedford College. Benham wrote a volume in each of the series Cambridge natural history (1896) and the Oxford Treatise on zoology (1901), two great zoological works, authoritative for the next half-century. On 24 April 1889 he married Beatrice Eadie at London. She died in 1909 leaving a daughter and a son; Benham did not remarry.

In 1898 William Benham, by now a zoologist of world stature, was appointed professor of biology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Arriving on the Kaikoura in May 1898 he made an instant impression as 'a cheery young man, dapper, frank' who 'felt he could look after himself and manage even the toughest medical student' (medical students formed the majority of his classes). His classes were to become noted for their orderliness. In addition to his teaching duties, Benham was curator of the Otago University Museum. He at once began to reorganise it on modern lines, building a notable comparative anatomy collection.

Benham's teaching at once drew praise. Lucid and fluent, yet informal, he covered with panache the evolving panorama of the animal kingdom. He was also to teach palaeontology until 1907 and dental anatomy up to 1924. With rather less enjoyment he retained botany until 1923. He was busy, too, on the Faculty of Arts and Science and the professorial board, as well as on the university council (from 1914) and the University of New Zealand's senate, board of studies and subsequent academic board.

Benham was a governor of the New Zealand Institute (1905–11), its president (1916–17) and one of its original fellows (1919). He received its (first) Hutton Memorial Medal in 1911 and the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1935. The highest honour, fellow of the Royal Society of London, came in 1907. Benham sat on the boards of the Cawthron Institute and Portobello marine research station, of which he was chairman from 1933 to 1946, and on the Hocken Library committee and Workers' Educational Association Otago council. A compact, active man, both physically and mentally, Benham was esteemed in civic and social life. He was a founder of the University Club, Dunedin, and of the Eugenics Education Society of New Zealand and patron of the Dunedin Film Society.

Busy as he was, Benham's research was never allowed to flag: over 67 years he produced about 160 scientific papers. In the first decade at Otago a typical year brought six or more. These ranged widely through offshore invertebrates, to whale anatomy, kiwi, takahe and a moa egg. But his speciality was still annelid worms, as shown in a long series of papers written between 1906 and 1934.

The acknowledged leader of New Zealand zoology, Benham brought to it a needed energy and many-sidedness, although his most concentrated, penetrating work had perhaps already been achieved in England. Showing little interest in modern ecology, ethnology and genetics, he was the inheritor of a great tradition rather than the herald of a new one. Yet in his special field his authority ran worldwide, and his zoological achievement in New Zealand was immense.

Benham published comprehensive papers on Antarctic polychaete worms collected on a variety of expeditions, including one – of which he was a member – in 1908 to the Auckland Islands, and Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated expedition on the Terra Nova. His first allegiance, however, was to the study of earthworms (Oligochaeta), in which New Zealand was rich. The southern continent earthworms drew Benham into speculating, on the basis of their distribution, that Antarctica and South America were once linked by land-bridges; the theory is no longer regarded as tenable.

Benham's character – genial, kindly, tolerant, humorous, yet of definite views – helped him to inspire others. His influence may also have owed something to a prose style which was direct and simple, and avoided unnecessary technical terms. Editors continued to indulge his penchant for slyly humorous titles: his last-but-one paper (1949) was on 'A yard-long earthworm, Notoscolex hakeaphilus', and a paper of 1945 was titled 'An earthworm with four penes, Conicodrilus genus novum'.

Retiring from his chair in 1937, Benham was awarded a Coronation Medal, and an honorary doctorate of science from the University of New Zealand. He was made a KBE in 1939. Still active through his eighties, he published on earthworms and fossil whales, with five papers also on a new interest, the octopodous molluscs. He died at Dunedin on 21 August 1950, and was cremated with the Anglican rite. An academic minute recorded his vigour and originality of mind and the gracious personality that would be 'long remembered in the University he adored'.