Lucy Evelyn Cheesman (8 October 1881, in Westwood, Kent – 15 April 1969, in London) was the first woman Zoo Curator (Regent’s Park Zoo, London) in 1920.
She was a British entomologist and traveller. Between 1924 and 1952, Cheesman went on 8 solo expeditions in the South Pacific, and collected over 70,000 specimens, which she accompanied with sketches and notes. These are now part of the collections of the Natural History Museum in London. Cheesman published extensively about her previous work and travels. In 1955 she was awarded an O.B.E. for her services to science.
Lucy Evelyn Cheesman was one of five children of Florence Maud Tassell and Robert Cheesman, born 8 October 1881. Lacking both money and education, she worked for a time as a governess with the Murray-Smith family in Gumley, Leicestershire, but did not find it congenial work. She taught herself French and German by travelling in both countries. Interested in the natural world, Cheesman was unable to train for a career as a veterinary surgeon because the Royal Veterinary College did not accept women students in 1906. During World War I, she worked as a civil servant at the Admiralty, where her German was useful in identifying businesses that were German sympathizers, for the Neutral and Enemy Trade Index (NETI).
After the war she met Harold Maxwell-Lefroy, professor of entomology at Imperial College of Science and honorary curator of the insect house at the London Zoological Gardens, and studied entomology. In May 1917, Evelyn took up the position of Assistant Curator of Insects at London Zoo. In 1919 she became a fellow of the Royal Entomological Society of London. In 1920 became the first woman to be hired as a curator at London Zoo. In 1924 she was invited to join the St George zoological expedition to the Marquesas and Galapagos Islands as the group's official entomologist. The expedition was a private one, a mix of scientists and tourists with divergent aims and interests. Cheesman considered the expedition to be disorganised, and left it at Tahiti, along with Cyril Crossland. She was able to continue exploring and gathering specimens on her own with the help of £100 from her brother Bob, who sent her money after he heard rumours about the expedition's possible financial instability. From then on, Cheesman preferred to travel alone. In 1926, she resigned as Insect Curator and affiliated herself, unpaid, with the natural history department of the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum). She spent most of the next twelve years on expeditions, travelling to New Guinea, the New Hebrides and other islands in the Pacific Ocean. In New Guinea she made a collecting expedition to the coastal area between Aitape and Jayapura (known as Hollandia at the time) and visited the nearby Cyclop Mountains. She treated indigenous populations with respect, learning from them, and was known in the islands as ‘the woman who walks’ and ‘the lady of the mountains’. In her writings she recorded indigenous ways of life that few outsiders had ever seen, and that were beginning to disappear even in her time.
During the Second World War she returned to England and did war work, but injured her back descending from a train during the blackout. After the war, in 1949–50, she travelled to the Pacific islands again, but due to ongoing pain, decided to give up active exploration. She assisted at the Natural History Museum for many years as an unpaid volunteer. She supported herself with the income from her writing, living frugally. In 1954, after hip replacement surgery, at the age of seventy-three, she felt well enough to again go on an expedition to Aneityum in the South Pacific. She had a house, named 'Red Crest', built for herself about five kilometres inland from Alelgauhat village. During her nine-month stay she collected 10,000 insects and 500 plants. In 1955 Evelyn Cheesman was awarded an OBE and a civil list pension for her contributions to entomology, giving her some financial security. In an interview, given at the time of the award, she is reported to have said "We drop down, or get run over, but we never retire." She continued to work at the museum, writing and classifying specimens, until her death in London on 15 April 1969.
Her older brother, Colonel Robert Ernest Cheesman (1878–1962), was a desert explorer, a diplomat in Iraq, Arabia and Ethiopia, and the author of In Unknown Arabia (1926) and other works. He is credited with discovering Gerbillus cheesmani. He also received an O.B.E. Their entries are listed next to each other in the Dictionary of British and Irish botanists and horticulturalists.
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