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Edith Berkeley (1875–1963)

A Family of Trailblazers: Edith Berkeley, Dr. Alfreda Needler, & Dr. Mary Needler Arai

Edith Berkeley, née Dunnington, was a marine biologist who became the leading scientist in her field, and according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), was responsible for shaping “Canada as a world authority of Polychaetes in the early 1900s (DFO Pacific, 2016).”

Edith was born in Tulbagh, South Africa in 1875, and met her English born husband, Cyril Berkeley, at the University of London while they were undergraduate students. Edith was studying a pre-medical course. In 1902, after they married, the Berkeleys travelled to Bihar, India, where Cyril studied the processing of Indigo. While in India, the Edith and Cyril had a daughter, named Alfreda, in 1903.

In 1914, the Berkeleys moved to British Columbia, and Edith began teaching at the University of British Columbia as a Zoology Assistant, and Cyril began teaching in the Department of Bacteriology. Edith earned 30 dollars a month, and Cyril earned 100.

In 1918, Edith made the decision to leave her paid position, and begin volunteering as an investigator at the Pacific Biologic Station in Nanaimo, BC. In all likelihood, Edith made this decision due to her desire to conduct research, and because of her lack of graduate education, that might not have been possible if she continued to work at UBC.

Edith began her research in Polychaete taxonomy (the classification of marine worms) and quickly became the leading expert in the field. Edith published 12 papers on her own, as well as 34 with Cyril, who, in 1930, left his position at UBC to research with Edith. Many of these papers were published in prestigious journals, such as Nature, and Proceedings of the Zoological Society. Several organisms were named after Edith, and in 1969, six years after her death; UBC began their Edith Berkeley Memorial Lectures.

Apart from her dedication to her research, Edith was also very interested in gardening. Edith and Cyril dedicated a great deal of time to their gardens, and even developed a new species of Irises. Edith's story is remarkable in that she was able to become an expert in a male-dominated field without pay and without a graduate degree. While Edith certainly worked as a team with her husband, she was also recognized for her individual achievements, and her legacy inspired many women to come.

One woman who followed in Edith's footsteps was her daughter, Dr. Alfreda Berkeley Needler. Alfreda studied Zoology as well and earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto in 1930. Alfreda also conducted volunteer research in marine biology, and her work too resulted in several prestigious publications.

Alfreda's own daughter would also follow in her grandmother's, and mother's footsteps. Dr. Mary Needler Arai (1932-2017) was a renowned Zoologist and Professor Emerita at the University of Calgary in Biological Sciences. Mary was also a lifelong honorary member of the Canadian Society of Zoologists (CSZ). Mary was also the recipient of an honorary Doctorate from the University of New Brunswick. After Mary’s passing, Dr. Lucy Lee from the CSZ wrote that “with her quiet, yet persistent style, Mary broke down many barriers for women in science.” Edith, Alfreda, and Mary were remarkable women who dedicated their lives to science, when very few other women were doing it.

Edith Berkeley

Edith Berkeley, photo courtesy of Dr. Mary Needler Arai.

amry Needly Arai

Dr. Mary Needler Arai, photo courtesy of Bruce Arai.


Pacific, D. {DFO_Pacific}. (2016, October 20). #BecauseOfHer research, Marine Biologist Edith Berkeley shaped Canada as a world authority on polychaetes in the ea… {Tweet}. Retrieved from

Edith Berkeley. (n.d.). retrieved January 16, 2018, from

Gosztonyi Ainley, M.(1990) Last in the Field? Canadian Woman Natural Scientists, 1815-1965. In Despite the odds : essays on Canadian women and science(25-62). Montreal : Véhicule Press.In Memoriam: Mary Needler Arai. (2017). Retrieved January 16, 2018, from,

Lee, Dr. Lucy (2017, September). Professor, Dr. Mary Needler Arai. Retrieved January 16, 2018, from,

Mary Needler Arai. (2017, September 12). Retrieved January 16, 2018, from

Needler, A.W.H.( 2008, April 13.) Edith and Cyril Berkeley. Retrieved January 16, 2018, from,

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