London Zoo’s first female curator, Lucy Evelyn Cheesman was a woman who was determined to follow her own path in a field where men led the the way.
Cheesman was born in Kent in 1881. As a child she had a love for wildlife and natural history and she’d always wanted to be a vet.
In 1906, she applied to become a vet but the Royal Veterinary Society didn’t admit women.
Cheesman got her London Zoo gig through a mix of good timing, luck and genuine love for wildlife. Just after the First World War a friend introduced her to entomologist and London Zoo insect curator Maxwell Lefroy and he was in desperate need of an assistant. Cheesman was informed that it was ‘work that a woman can do and no special knowledge is needed’.
Disappointingly, there were no insects at the insect house when Cheesman arrived so she set out to rectify that. She literally went out with a net to catch some, and even got local children to help her. She made her own displays and set about making the insects a vital part of London Zoo. She put them in context with the rest of our ecosystem.
She had thought the role to be temporary, but she continued in her work for many years and eventually took over the curation of the Insect House in 1920. When the Veterinary society finally lifted the ban on women applying, Cheesman decided not to.
Her fascination with her subject took her much further than Regent’s Park. Her first expedition was to The Galapagos in 1923 as part of the St George Expedition.
During her exploring Cheesman often found herself in danger and she actually became entrapped in a nephila spider’s web on the island of Gorgona in South America. The webs were so huge and thick that she was sure she would be stuck. She only managed to hack her way out after an hour when she recalled she had a nail file in her pocket.
Despite the dangers, she travelled on her own. Usually this was her choice, but she also found that sometimes people weren’t willing to accompany her. In some instances, natives were incredibly superstitious about certain areas that Cheesman wanted to explore. She was going so deep into forests that natives were often afraid, insisting that the areas she was visiting were haunted. She continued regardless and it was this gumption and strong will that earned her great respect among locals and went a long way to protecting her from potential hostile encounters.
Cheesman left her post at London Zoo in 1926, instead choosing to affiliate herself with the work of the British Museum (what is now The Natural History Museum).
Between 1924 and 1952, Cheesman went on eight expeditions to the South Pacific, concentrating her work in the New Hebrides and Papua New Guinea. She collected over 70,000 specimens during her lifetime. However, her travels weren’t without danger. Alongside mishaps with spiders, she suffered terribly with malaria and fevers. She sometimes found herself perilously close to starvation. But this didn’t stop her working. It didn’t quash her urge to travel, to explore, to discover something new.
Her final expedition was in 1956, to the island of Aneityum in the South Pacific. She was 73 and she’d just had a hip replacement.
It used to be bewildering to be told when I came back, ‘How I envy you! You are very lucky! I have always longed to do what you have done’.
What exactly were they waiting for? What did they lack – the Urge? … There is nothing that I have done which could not have been done by others. What were they waiting for? Experience? I bought it. Health? I risked it. Adequate financial aid? I grabbed what I could and went without the remainder. But the wise and the cautious who have to make certain of all of these things before they can start will never get there.
Evelyn Cheesman, Time Well Spent (1960)
Evelyn Cheesman changed our understanding of insects and their importance in our natural world (this BBC radio programme about Cheesman will make you want to visit the bug house at London Zoo immediately). She was solely responsible for the discovery of at least one insect species, Costomedes cheesmanae as well as five frog species and a blue orchid that was credited to her in 2013 and hasn’t been discovered again since.
It might seem that for a woman who collected so many specimens in her lifetime, the number of new species that she discovered is rather low. But her systematic studies and dedicated research to the understanding of insects means that we know more about their origin. She even debunked the idea that insects in the South Pacific were related to those in Australia, instead supporting the theory that they were of Asian origin. Scientists have a much deeper understanding of our world because of Cheesman.
In 1955, Evelyn Cheesman was awarded an OBE for her services to science. She never stopped working, she continued as a curator at The Natural History Museum for her the remainder of her life. She passed away in 1969.
“We drop down or get run over,” said Cheesman, “we never retire.”