BENSON, William Noel
Research geologist, professor of geology.
A new biography of Benson, William Noel appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
William Noel Benson was born on 26 December 1885 at Annerley, near London, the son of William Benson, descendant of a North of England landholding Quaker family and, later, a shipping manager in Australia. Through his grandmother, Caroline Arch, he was a descendant of Margaret Fell, who married, as her second husband, George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends. His mother, Emma Elizabeth Benson (née Mather), of Hobart, was descended from another branch of the Benson family. The bulk of Benson's primary and secondary education was in Friends High School at Hobart (1897–1902). He started his scientific training at the University of Tasmania, and between 1905 and 1907 he completed the B.Sc. course at the University of Sydney where he came under the influence of Professor Sir Edgeworth David, an inspiring teacher of geology. Benson's first researches in Australian geology were undertaken from 1907 to 1911, after which he spent till 1914 working at Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge. He returned to Sydney as research fellow and lecturer at the University, and continued Australian field studies till his appointment in 1917 to the chair of geology and mineralogy at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. These early researches, about which he wrote a series of important papers on the geology and petrology of the great serpentine belt of New South Wales, culminated in two notable publications on the origin of ultrabasic rocks appearing in 1918.
In spite of having to teach single handed for the first nine years of his professorship at Otago, Benson quickly made himself familiar with the New Zealand geological scene, and papers soon appeared containing some important concepts on paleogeography and structure of the Pacific margin. He undertook researches in the Ordovician rocks of Fiordland and evolved new ideas on the geomorphology of southern New Zealand. His major work in this country was a long and detailed study of the Cainozoic petrographic province of east Otago; a comprehensive memoir about this awaited publication at the time of his death at Dunedin on 20 August 1957.
Benson's dedication to his science and his dogged pursuit of new knowledge resulted in a remarkable output of scientific work – he published more than 100 papers – but unfortunately his habit of working long hours to the limit of his physical strength taxed his health in later years. He was a humble man of simple tastes and a kindly, lovable character, recognised in his lifetime as a world figure in geology.
Mrs Benson, well known as Professor Helen Gertrude Rawson, was a graduate of Cambridge and London Universities. She came to New Zealand in 1912 to the staff of the Home Science Department of the University of Otago, and was a lecturer till 1923 when she became professor of Home Science and Dean of the Faculty. Four years later she married W. N. Benson. A charming and cultured woman, she had always had wide and varied interests and gave notable service on public and other bodies. After her marriage she lectured on international affairs for WEA (1929–43). Among other activities she was a member of the St. Margaret's College Council for 27 years and a member of the Senate of the University of New Zealand for nine years. She was one of the founders and the first national president of the New Zealand branch of the International Federation of University Women. For many years she was an active member of the National Council of Women holding office as local, then as Dominion president. She was also a representative on the National Council of Churches and secretary of the Councils' committee for assisting refugees. Gertrude Helen Benson died at Dunedin on 21 February 1964.
by lan Charles McKellar, M.SC., Geologist, New Zealand Geological Survey, Dunedin.
- Otago Daily Times, 22 Aug 1957 (Obit).