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Catharine Hodgkin

Catharine Hodgkin (1864-1946) was, in 1936, the first woman to be elected to the Council of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne. She was an active member for over 40 years and was noted for her work ringing birds on the Farne Islands in Northumberland.

During her lifetime, as a member of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne (now the Natural History Society of Northumbria) Catharine was always referred to as Mrs T E Hodgkin. She was never addressed as Mrs Catharine Hodgkin even after her husband, a well respected local banker, died in 1921.

Catharine was respected for her scientific approach to the study of birds, insects and flora, but as a woman in a man’s world it must have been difficult for her to gain the same academic reputation as the men who served on Council.   

This did not stop her commitment to the natural world and she travelled widely to observe birds in their natural habitat, visiting Scolt Head in Norfolk, the Balearic Islands, Greece and Italy as an honorary birdwatcher for the British Ornithologists’ Union.  

Kittiwakes, Rissa tridactyla, reared on the Farne Islands and ringed there by Catharine Hodgkin were the first of their species to be found (recovered) on the west side of the Atlantic, verifying the theory that these birds travelled vast distances. In addition to her serious interest in Ornithology, Catharine’s many other interests all stemmed from the natural world. She collected butterflies and moths and had a sound working knowledge of the British flora. She was also a keen gardener, and among her many hobbies she enjoyed drawing, painting in water-colour and photography.

Catharine pictured with other Council members when she was elected in 1936.

Catharine did not have any surviving children of her own but her nephews spent their Easter holidays with her at Heather Cottage, Budle Bay, Northumberland, and her enthusiasm for natural history was so infectious she inspired her nephew, Sir Alan L Hodgkin, to study physiology, biochemistry and zoology at Cambridge. Hodgkin, who referred to her as ‘Aunt Katie’,  went on to share the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1963.

Very little, in the way of historical records, survive in our archive collections to highlight Catharine’s contribution to natural history research. A few photographs and a short obituary published by B P Hill in the Transactions is all we have. However, in 2016, we were presented with a small collection of miniature bird models which had been made by Mrs Hodgkin and given to her great friend George Temperley (1875-1967), a close neighbour when she lived in Stocksfield, Northumberland.

Her creations of tiny kingfishers on a branch, kittiwakes on a nest with chicks, a dipper on a rock, sandwich terns and a lapwing give us a brief glimpse into her world and her love of art and nature.

Tom Russell Goddard, the Hancock Museum Curator and a great friend of Catharine gives a glowing account of her work and her character in his obituary published in The Ibis.

Catherine Hodgkin was a woman of high character and exceptional charm of manner, and her unfailing courtesy and consideration for others endeared her to all with whom she came into contact throughout her long life. Her loss will be keenly felt by a wide circle of friends.

We may not have a lot of information on this remarkable woman but we can be certain that she pioneered the way for all the other female bird ringers who followed in her footsteps to record and ring birds on the Farne Islands.

Dr Claire Jones (2018)

B P Hill’s obituary for Catharine Hodgkin, published in the Natural History Society’s Annual Report in 1947.

“The Society has suffered a very severe loss through the death of Mrs Catharine Hodgkin. She became a member in 1905 and for 40 years was one of its most active supporters. She was the first lady member to be elected to the Council on which she served for 7 years. She was an enthusiastic ornithologist being specially interested in bird preservation and bird ringing in which she took an active part. Further she was a life long entomologist and her knowledge of the British flora was very wide. Her experience was always at the service of her fellow members and for many years she acted as Examiners of the Hancock Prize Essays. She bequeathed to the Society some locally captured butterflies and a donation of £10, while her Executors presented 28 bound volumes of “British Birds,” a series of “The Ibis,” from 1927 to 1945, and one or two specimens of local birds.”


Read Catharine Hodgkin’s full obituary by Hancock Museum Curator, T Russell Goddard in the Ibis (published by the British Ornithologists’ Union).

There is a copy of Hodgkin, Alan L (1992) Chance and Design: Reminiscences in Science in Peace and War in the Great North Museum: Hancock library.  In the book Hodgkin writes fondly about his Aunt Katie and his time with her at both her home in Old Ridley, Stocksfield and at Heather Cottage in Northumberland.