Elizabeth Joan Batham was born at Dunedin on 2 December 1917, the daughter of Guy Symonds Meacham Batham, an electrical engineer, and his wife, Ethel Mary Gibbs. Betty attended Archerfield College, a private school for girls. She displayed early talents in photography, painting and design. Her mother encouraged an interest in natural science, and her father in electrical engineering and geology. Family holidays were at the seaside or amongst the Otago lakes and mountains. Batham’s extended family included F. G. Gibbs, the Nelson educationalist and naturalist; David Smith, who became a judge and chancellor of the University of New Zealand; and the anthropologist H. D. Skinner.
In 1933 Batham studied English and home science at the University of Otago. In 1936 she began a science degree and also took papers towards a diploma of fine arts. Graduating with first-class honours in botany (1940) and zoology (1941), she was senior scholar in botany and was awarded prizes in zoology and experimental science. After a year in Wellington as a demonstrator in zoology at Victoria University College, she returned to Otago to undertake hydatids research. The Second World War delayed her taking up a Shirtcliffe fellowship, awarded in 1943 for overseas study. Although she continued hydatids research, and taught physiology and botany part time, marine biology also captured her attention in the form of spare-time plankton studies at the run-down fish hatchery at Portobello. Batham’s early scientific work attracted much favourable attention, resulting in the award of the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Hamilton Memorial Prize in 1947.
In England from late 1945, Batham did pioneering experimental work on sea anemones under Carl Pantin at both the University of Cambridge and the Plymouth laboratory of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. She was supported in her final year by a senior fellowship of the International Federation of University Women. After gaining her Cambridge doctorate in 1948, Batham continued as Pantin’s research assistant.
She returned to Dunedin in September 1950 to oversee the revival of the old marine station at Portobello, which was to be taken over by the university. Family ties and local marine biological opportunities made this a permanent return home, apart from subsequent study and conference leave. Batham’s job was made daunting by the departure of the physiologist Professor J. C. Eccles, the champion of the marine station project. Although the medical school departments remained staunchly supportive, other internal university support evaporated as the marine station was seen as a competitor for precious resources. Dilapidated buildings were renovated by 1954 then replaced in 1961. Road access was developed in 1956 and a purpose-built research vessel commissioned in 1966. The marine station gained an international reputation, although for many years it was little involved in routine teaching and research activities of the university.
Betty Batham had determination and tenacity. Before the road was developed she frequently reached the remote marine station by canoe or on foot, carrying food, mail, library acquisitions and scientific equipment. As the station became better established, she had more time for her scientific work. She served on the New Zealand Oceanographic Committee, participated in the Danish Galathea Deep Sea Expedition (1952) and was a member of the Chatham Islands 1954 Expedition. Several new papers extended her earlier experimental work on sea anemones. Other pioneering publications were on rocky-shore ecology about Dunedin and in Doubtful Sound, and on benthic (sea-floor) ecology. Batham was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1962. She also served a term as president of the New Zealand Marine Sciences Society in 1966. She was promoted to senior lecturer in 1960 and to reader in 1967. At over 50, through sheer determination, she qualified as a scuba diver.
Betty Batham never married. In later life she shared her leisure time, triumphs and frustrations with her widowed father. Together they built a holiday house at Lake Hawea, where Betty pursued her interest in collecting and cultivating native plants.
Batham did not find administration easy, nor would she gladly delegate such duties. In February 1974, however, after a period of ill health, she reluctantly relinquished the directorship of the marine station and took study leave at Victoria University of Wellington. She never returned to Otago. In early July her car was found abandoned near the seashore at Seatoun, Wellington. Mystery, rumour and conjecture surrounded her disappearance, and although there were a number of reported sightings, none were verified. Betty Batham was later presumed to have drowned off Seatoun on or about 8 July 1974.