Dangling over the edge of a cliffside, her hands gripping a couple clumps of bracken embedded in the rock for dear life, Lucy Evelyn Cheesman (1881-1969) might well have decided then and there, if she somehow survived, to give fieldwork over forever in favor of the quiet comforts and small joys of the administrative work she had just left behind. It was 1925 and she had split off from her scientific colleagues to explore the insect life of the Polynesian Marquesas Islands on her own. Returning to camp after a day’s collecting, she slipped on some grass and found herself careening rapidly down a virtually vertical rock wall, saved from death only by the slowing friction of her rucksack and the few handholds she had managed to grasp in passing. Looking down she could see nothing but certain death, and looking up nothing but unscaleable rock.  One thought whirred through her head: “They won’t even find my bones.” 1

It was not the first time that Cheesman’s spirit of adventure and daring had aimed to kill her. When she was a child not yet six years of age her older brothers had dared her to wade out into a large pond, touch a boat, and return.  It was a matter of honor among the Cheesman children that any dare issued must be carried out, regardless of risk to life and health, and so the indefatigable young Evelyn (she never went by her given first name) marched forward and began making her way boldly into the icy waters. Only, the further she went, the muddier the path became until finally the suction was so great that she couldn’t move her feet any further. Unable to finish her objective and, more importantly, unable to return, she could do nothing but stand submerged in the freezing water until some adults happened to notice her predicament and rushed to her rescue.

After some emergency applications of slimy weeds and mustard, Cheesman fell ill with severe bronchitis and bronchial issues would recurringly haunt her first decades until a mid-life operation cleared up its worst symptoms.  But the die had been cast – Cheesman was a person who believed herself capable of any act of physical daring, and would throw her life in the balance to see her self-set projects through. 

Pond incident aside, Cheesman’s youth was a virtual Anne of Green Gables snapshot, spent in a small British town with a former monastery for a home. There, the postman had never traveled further than ten miles from his home, and pleasure was taken in rounds of family visits, excursions among nature and the very occasional carriage ride to the neighboring town. With her sister, she received a few years of schooling and a good grounding in French and German, enough to qualify them for the jobs as governesses that represented the limit of what their country ambitions could hope for. 

The years that followed saw Cheesman in a succession of various jobs, each slowly pushing her closer to her destiny. Her work as a governess led to long excursions into the nearby forests to look for badgers and other wildlife, which in turn formed an ambition to devote her life to working with animals. Unfortunately, no veterinary academy at the time accepted women applicants, so Cheesman had to settle for the next best thing – a position as a canine nurse in the practice of the King’s personal canine veterinarian, Alfred Sewell.

The job’s nature was in its name – Cheesman traveled the country, visiting homes wealthy enough to afford canine nursing, and taking care of the administration of medicine and care to dogs suffering from diseases or recovering from surgeries that had been performed by Sewell. She performed her job with devotion and insight, but after Sewell’s death she found herself at odds with his successor and when a new post opened up, as the overseer of the Insect House at the London Zoo, she gladly made the change. After four years of neglect occasioned by the First World War, the House was in a sad state, a little-visited corner of the zoo featuring empty exhibits and no explanations of the few animals that remained.

Cheesman’s organizational ability came to the fore as she arranged contracts with new insect procurers, procured steady sources of vegetation to serve as food for the animals, created interesting exhibits that showed unexpected insect behaviors, and wrote explanation cards so that visitors could know what to watch for and what it all meant. Soon the Insect House, long the black sheep of the London Zoo, became one of its most popular attractions, and Cheesman took particular pride in watching families gather around her explanations, reading them to each other as they learned together to see the animals in front of them with new eyes.

Her reputation as a competent administrator and classifier established, she was offered a chance to go on an insect collecting mission in 1924 to French Polynesia. The expedition, aboard the St. George,  was an odd amalgam of tourism and scientific research, financed by a complement of paying tourists who were there to see the sights, and whose price of admission financed the bringing of a small team of scientific collectors. It was an arrangement, intriguing on the surface, that proved frustrating to everybody. The scientists always needed more time on the islands they visited to make their collecting worthwhile, but the tourists habitually complained of boredom after a couple of days at each site.

The result was that the expedition spent most of its time at sea in transit from destination to destination, and Cheesman was growing steadily fed up with her inability to do the thorough work that she knew she could, if given time. She formed a plan to leave the ship and carry out the work on her own, but first there was the small matter of not plunging to her death to be attended to…

Grasping the bracken on the cliffside, Cheesman decided to oh…so… slowly… shift her fingers one at a time, working her way along the ferns until she found a plant with stronger roots from which she could make her way to a tree top from which she was able to manage her freedom at last. The entire affair might have put her off adventure altogether, and certainly off of solo exploration, but within a month she had left the St. George and established herself on Tahiti, where she remained for a full month before extending her search to Raiatea and Borabora. She managed to collect 500 specimens, a far cry from the tens of thousands her future expeditions would net, but enough to merit the financing of a second, solo, expedition, four years later, to the New Hebrides.

From her forties through her seventies, Cheesman regularly returned to the Pacific Islands in search of new species to establish the complicated migration of species between Australia and Asia. She returned six times on expeditions to the New Hebrides (1929-31), Papua (1933-34), the Cyclops Mountains and West Papua (1935-36), Waigeu and the Japen islands (1938-39), New Caledonia (1949-50), and Aneityum (1954-55). She challenged prevailing assumptions about the distribution and expansion of insect species and collected over 100,000 specimens which were forwarded to the British Museum to form the basis of taxonomical research for the entomologists in residence there, all while battling recurrent malaria, local bureaucracy, and unspeakably rugged terrain.

In between her expeditions, meanwhile, she authored sixteen books telling her adventures, each book’s revenue serving as a source of finance for the next planned expedition. Told engagingly, her stories of befriending local tribes in order to gain ever deeper access to the hidden entomological gems of the Pacific Islands both sold well and humanized indigenous Islander culture. As against a tradition of explorer literature that gloried in painting native cultures as bloodthirsty, lawless, savage, and fundamentally other, she took pains to detail the inner logic and fundamental rules of practices ranging from territorial taboos to cannibalism.

Cheesman’s last expedition, to Tarifa, Spain, came in 1958, when she was 77 years of age. It was a three week trip financed by income received from publication of her memoir, Things Worth While (1957), and provided her with one last opportunity to walk through a rugged landscape, search for species no one had yet seen, and connect with people from different cultures. She continued writing over the remaining eleven years of her life, accounts of her rich life and the even richer world waiting to be discovered by anybody should they simply choose to walk, and wait, and look.

Lead image: Natural History Museum licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0

FURTHER READING: Cheesman’s memoir Things Worth While is almost painfully charming in its opening chapters describing a world just on the verge of annihilation at the hands of urban expansion, but her depictions of islander life later, though commendable for their attempts to show the humanity behind cultures that had been labeled as irredeemably savage, also have a tendency towards a certain colonial condescension that manifests itself in the use of terminology that we would consider today as racist in origin if perhaps not in intent. So, be warned. If you want a shorter breakdown of her life and accomplishments, Hugh Laracy’s Watriama and Co: Further Pacific Island Portraits (2013) provides a good 25 page summary of Cheesman and accounts of several other women explorers worth knowing!

And for more awesome Women in Science comics, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 12 and 3

1 Things Worth While, p. 118.