In this blog for Women’s History Month, Claire Clough, University Museums and Special Collections Services Librarian, shares her research on the life and work of Nellie B. Eales (1889–1989).

Eales was one of the first women to study for, and be awarded, a PhD at University College, Reading. She became Senior Lecturer in Zoology, Curator in the Department of Zoology, and fellow of the Zoological Society of London. She helped to shape Professor Francis Cole’s collection of books and papers, arranged for his library to be transferred to the University of Reading and produced an indispensable guide to its contents.

Dr Nellie B. Eales (1889–1989) was a respected academic, prominent in University of Reading life in the twentieth century and in the wider zoological research community. I first learned about Eales when I was working on her two-volume catalogue of the Cole Library and wanted to find out more.

Three black and white photographs of Dr Nellie B. Eales at her 90th birthday party. She is seen standing beside the cake in a smart suit, cutting the cake and handing out slices of the cake on a tray.
Photos showing the 90th birthday party held for Dr Nellie B. Eales in April 1979 (MS 5303)

Eales studied at Reading for her BSc, which she gained in 1910. Reading gained its University charter in 1926, so at this time it was known as University College, Reading and its degrees were awarded by the University of London. She went on to a become Curator in the Department of Zoology in 1912,  keeping the department going while her male colleagues were called up to fight in World War I.

In 1919, Eales was appointed as a Lecturer in the Zoology department and later became a Senior Lecturer. In 1921 a report to the governors of University College, Reading, states “the lecturer, Miss N. B. Eales, has been awarded the Research degree of Ph.D. of London University” (p. 31).

A fellow of the Zoological Society of London, Eales researched and published on cheese mites initially, then on marine biology and African elephants. Due to the strength and significance of her research, she was awarded a Doctorate of Science in 1926.

Nellie Eales's paper 'The Life History and Economy of the Cheese Mites' displayed on a book shelf. The paper is aged and browning.
Eales’s work on cheese mites in the Cole Library collection.

When the University was newly chartered in the late 1920s, it was not unusual for major faculties to be run by one professor and a lecturer. This was the case with Professor F.J. Cole (1872–1959), foundation Professor of Zoology at the University of Reading, and Eales. They were supported by a Museum Assistant, W.E. Stoneman, as discussed by J.C. Holt in The University of Reading: the first fifty years (p. 16). It is clear that Eales was at the centre of the department during its formative years. It follows that she was so dedicated to the department, and the University, for the rest of her life.

Eales worked closely alongside Cole, as a ’student, colleague and friend’, as described in a report on the early history of the Zoology department in the University Archives. From her earliest days at Reading, Eales took an active interest in Cole’s collections of books and specimens. She helped to shape Cole’s collections during his lifetime and after his death in 1939.

A close-up of book spines. One reads 'Eales – Elephas'.
Some of Eales’s work on elephants in the Cole Library collection.

All reports of Eales’s time at Reading indicate she took great pleasure in playing an active role in University life and in her field of research. Eales was a member of the University Senate 1928–42, only the second woman to sit on this board of governance (Holt, p. 275). She was involved in the Old Students’ Association at Reading, taught on Marine Biological Association courses at Plymouth, was President of the Malacological Society of London (1948–51) and editor of the Journal of Molluscan Studies (1956-1969). The Journal published an obituary of Eales, written by Joyce E. Rigby, where much of this biographical detail is taken from, in 1990.

Though she retired as Senior Lecturer in Zoology at Reading in 1954, this was far from the end of Eales’s passion for her research and her dedication to the University’s collections. The University of Reading Library had acquired Cole’s vast library collection of many thousands of books upon his death in 1959. From 1964 the collection was housed in a special room on the top floor of the Library. Cole had created a card index for the collection. In order to make it easier for researchers to access the collection and discover what was in it, Eales agreed to produce a chronologically arranged printed catalogue of the extended Cole collection.

Eales's signature, written in ink inside the cover of one of her books.
Eales’s signature

The Cole Library of early medicine and zoology catalogue was published in two parts, in 1969 and 1975 (when Eales was 76). Packed with valuable information about each title, such as about illustrations, provenance and binding, Eales’s catalogue is indispensable to any user of the Cole Library. The catalogues are an incredible piece of research in their own right and have been enormously helpful as I catalogue a selection of titles from the Library collection. Further to this, in the 1980s, Eales donated a beautiful Book of Hours from the 1400s to the University of Reading Special Collections Services.

Further reading

This is an edited version of a blog first published on the University of Reading’s Special Collections website in 2019. Read the full version by Claire Clough, including sources and further reading, here.

A collection of articles by Eales has been catalogued by Claudia Ricci, University Museums and Special Collections Services Metadata and Collections Manager Librarian.

Brian Richards, Emeritus Professor in the Institute of Education at the University of Reading, has written a blog on The Young Nellie Eales and her Postcard Home.