William Dodds Benson, 1838 - 1888

by Brian Stevenson
last updated April, 2020

W.D. Benson was an amateur microscopist, active in his local microscopical societies from ca. 1870 onward. Benson was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and joined the Glasgow Society of Field Naturalists around 1870. After he moved to Richmond, Yorkshire, England, in 1877, he soon joined the Richmond Naturalists’ Field Club.

A number of microscope slides are known from Benson’s time in Richmond (Figure 1). Minutes of the Glasgow society indicate that he frequently exhibited specimens to that club, and taught slide-making techniques. I have not seen any of Benson’s slides that were unequivocally produced in Scotland, but they probably resemble his English productions.

Figure 1. Microscope slides by W.D. Benson, probably from his time in Yorkshire, 1877-1888. These are dry-mounts of selected, arranged foraminifera (both recent and fossil). Records indicate that Benson mounted a wide variety of specimen types. The right-most slide is of fossil foraminifera collected in Market Weighton, Yorkshire. Images from the author’s collection or adapted for nonprofit, educational purposes from an internet auction site.


William Dodds Benson was born on December 30, 1838 in Glasgow. He was a son of Duncan and Janet (née Dodds) Benson.

The 1861 census shows that William was then working for the Post Office in Glasgow. He remained with that service for the rest of his life. An internal transfer caused his 1877 move to Yorkshire.

William was married in about 1867, to Margaret Clark Munro. They are known to have had four children, although the first and third never appear in census records, and presumably died when young.

On December 10, 1872, Benson gave a presentation “On Zoophytes” to the Glasgow Society of Field Naturalists. Presumably, he had been a member for some time before that.

The following October, “Mr. W.D. Benson gave an account of a long series of interesting experiments he had made during the summer months with infusions of different vegetable substances, in order to make observations on the development of Infusoria. The infusions were kept in test-tubes, some hermetically sealed, others open; some kept in the dark, and others in different degrees of light. Life began to appear in the open tubes exposed to the light in thirty-six to forty hours. The development of life was slower and not so abundant in those tubes kept in the dark; and in those hermetically sealed no signs of life were seen till after six or seven days. The first forms of life that began to appear were Bacteria and Vibriones, then a little later Paramecia were seen. In making some of his experiments in a room where some water containing Rotifers was standing, he found Rotifers in great abundance in all his open tubes, but none in those that were closed, so that it seemed that the germs of the Rotifers had access to the open tubes through the air. He also found that in open tubes connected by a thread with the vessel containing the Rotifers, the diffusion took place more rapidly than through the air. Tubes with the same infusions, and placed in the same circumstances, were found to contain quite different forms of life. Mr. Benson also described the Sun Animalcule (Actinophrya sol), and its manner of feeding”.

Additional presentations over the years included “Specimens of Unio margaritifer, and a collection of pearls secreted by this mollusc” (May, 1874); “A large collection of zoophytes mounted for the microscope” (July, 1875) and “a number of butterflies from various parts of England” (May, 1876). On May 30, 1876, “Mr. W.D. Benson gave an explanation of a new method of mounting objects for the microscope. In illustration of his remarks he exhibited some beautifully prepared specimens”.

On July 25, 1876, “Mr. W.D. Benson read a few notes on the ‘Fresh-water Hydra’. After giving an outline of their discovery and the various experiments made with them by Trembley in 1743, he proceeded to show their place in Nature - their habits, and where found. Remarking that while Hydra vlridis and Hydra vulgaris were common he had never met with Hydra fusca in this district. These Hydrae possess extraordinary power of resisting mutilation, and of multiplying artificially when mechanically divided. No matter how many pieces we cut one into, each and all will be developed into a perfect hydra. Reproduction is effected sexually and asexually. In the sexual mode of reproduction the spermatozoa are developed in little conical elevations, while the ova are enclosed in sacs situated near the base of the attached end. Usually there is only one sac containing a single ovum, but occasionally there are two. When mature the ovum is expelled, and is at the same time fecundated by spermatozoa. The embryo is a minute free-swimming animal possessed with cilia. The asexual mode is a process of reproduction by gemmation, a new individual being gradually produced like a bud from a plant. Mr. W.D. Benson then read from a number of notes he had made when observing Hydrae and their parasite ‘Trichodina pediculus’ in his aquarium, where he had them constantly under microscopic observation for some months”.

Benson was elected to the Council of the Glasgow Society of Field Naturalists in 1874. He remained in that position until 1876, when he was elected Curator.

Minutes of the January 19, 1877 meeting of the Glasgow Society of Field Naturalists included, “The Curator of the Society, Mr. W.D. Benson, intimated that he had to resign his office, as he required to leave Glasgow, having to remove to Richmond, Yorkshire”. At the next meeting, the society elected Benson as a corresponding member.

By 1882, William Benson was the vice president of the Richmond Naturalists’ Club. An 1887 Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science states that W.D. Benson was the curator of the Museum of the Richmond Naturalists’ Field Club.

William Benson died on June 26, 1888, when only 49 years old.



England census and other records, accessed through ancestry.com

The Naturalist (1882) Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union, page 40

Nature (1872) Programme of papers to be read at the Winter session, 1872-1873, of the Glasgow Society of Field Naturalists, Vol. 6, page 573

Probate of the will of W.D. Benson (1888) “The Will of William Dodds Benson late of Richmond in the County of York Postmaster who died 26 June 1888 at Richmond was proved at the Principal Registry by Joseph Raine of Newbiggin Richmond photographer and Alexander Young of Richmond Brewer two of the Executors. Personal estate £552 19s 2d”, accessed through ancestry.com

Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1887) page 108

Report and Transactions of the Glasgow Society of Field Naturalists (1873) pages 38-39

Report and Transactions of the Glasgow Society of Field Naturalists (1874) pages 57 and 61

Report and Transactions of the Glasgow Society of Field Naturalists (1875) pages 97 and 103

Report and Transactions of the Glasgow Society of Field Naturalists (1876) pages 169, 173, 176, and 185

Report and Transactions of the Glasgow Society of Field Naturalists (1877) page 205

Scotland census and other records, accessed through ancestry.com