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Ellen Ida Benham
Ellen Ida Benham was born on 12 March 1871 at Allen's Creek, Kapunda, South Australia, third of eleven children of William Hoare Benham, solicitor, and his wife Aimie, née Huggins. She went from Kapunda Model School to the Advanced School for Girls, Adelaide, where she was influenced by the headmistress Madeline Rees George.
She studied at the University of Adelaide from 1889 (B.Sc., 1892). After becoming headmistress of Christ Church day school, Kapunda, for two years, she studied in Europe in 1895. She returned to teach science at Dryburgh House School, Adelaide, in 1896-1900, and later at Tormore House School under Caroline Jacob and concurrently at the Advanced School.
Ellen, like most of her brothers and sisters, followed her father's botanical interests.
Professor Ralph Tate, who was the Professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Adelaide, fell ill during 1901 and paid three people, including Ellen Ida Benham, to deliver his lectures. After Professor Tate’s death in September 1901, the Registrar wrote to all three asking for details of the lectures they had already delivered, were expecting to deliver, and how much they were being paid (documented in Registrar correspondence file 1901/1032 - below).
Ellen Benham continued to lecture in Botany after Professor Tate’s death. There is evidence that she conducted theoretical and practical examinations during 1902 (see Registrar correspondence file 1903/99 – below), and in December 1903, Ellen wrote to the Registrar asking whether her appointment as Lecturer in Botany was to be continued for the next and succeeding years (refer to Registrar correspondence file 1903/1110 - below). Ellen wrote to the Registrar again in November 1904 asking if her appointment as Lecturer of Botany would continue in 1905 and asked to be paid an honorarium rather than from student fees (Registrar correspondence file 1904/921 - below).
Ellen Ida Benham is the first female to have been listed as a Lecturer in the University Calendar. She is first listed as Lecturer in Botany in the Calendar in 1904 (see adjacent internal link).
In 1906 the University of Adelaide was gifted an herbarium and Ellen Ida Benham was given the job to arrange and document the herbarium for teaching (see Registrar correspondence file 1906/821 - below). Ellen’s role in arranging the herbarium is also recorded in the 1907 University annual report (which appears in the 1908 University Calendar – see adjacent internal link).
Ellen Benham travelled to England in 1908 to extend her knowledge of higher education, teaching at Winchester High School and gaining the Oxford Diploma of Education in an unusually short time.
On her return in 1909 Benham resumed teaching at Tormore and the University of Adelaide and helped found the lively Women Students' Club in which she held office.
Between 1902 and 1911, in the absence of a professor, Ellen Benham acted as head of the Botany department, sole lecturer, and keeper of the Herbarium (being an authority on the identification of plants). She reorganized the botany curriculum, extending the study of native flora and including field visits.
Owing to illness she reduced her schoolteaching in 1910 and resigned from Tormore at the end of 1911, teaching part time at Akaroa School in 1912. Her university teaching ended that year with the foundation of the Chair of Botany.
Ellen went on to purchase Walford Anglican School for Girls in 1912 and reformed the curriculum, notably introducing science.
In 1914 she was a foundation member of the Women Graduates' Club.
Miss Benham died of hepatic abscess in Adelaide on 27 April 1917 and was buried in Kapunda cemetery.
Benham is honoured at the University of Adelaide by the Benham Lecture Theatre, the result of a bequest by one of her descendants.Biographical SourceTaken from Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979; Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria, Australian National Herbarium
Biographical Notes - https://www.anbg.gov.au/biography/benham-ellen-ida.html - Accessed 13 March 2021; University Archives research conducted by Alison Chung (5 October 2021)
Profile Image - courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA - B 25677/40 [public domain]
Miss E I Benham - Asking if appointment as lecturer Botany to continue 1905 and regarding honorarium
Miss Ellen Ida Benham - Isaac Herbert Boas - James Drinkwater Iliffe - Geology and Botany lectures for Professor Ralph Tate