The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1978, Volume 24, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

By Dick Carlson

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Belle Benchley
Belle Benchley combined her talents as a naturalist with a love for animals and transformed the zoological gardens of the city into what is now the San Diego Zoo. A former school teacher, she began working in mid-life to create what became the best zoo in the world.

Benchley convinced the famous naturalists Osa and Martin Johnson (Osa poses with Benchley below) to bring their equally famous gorilla “M’bongo” to San Diego where he became an institution of his own. Her further programs of improving the structure, medical care and simple comfort of zoo inhabitants were ultimately copied by zoo directors around the world.

Osa Johnson and Belle Benchley

San Diego Zoo Director Emeritus Belle Benchley died—still working—at the age of ninety-one just five years ago. The challenge to women to push aside the restrictions placed on them is typified by a pioneer San Diego physician, Dr. Olive Brasier Cordua. Born in 1883, Olive Cordua widened the footpath cleared by Dr. Charlotte Baker a few years before.

Olive Brasier Cordua

As handy with a gun as any man, Dr. Cordua was the first leader of the San Diego Health Committee and as a direct result of her work San Diego in the 1920’s became known as the safest place in the country to have a baby. She formed the first Maternal Welfare Committee in California and was instrumental in founding the American Cancer Society chapter office in San Diego. Dr. Cordua was noted for her belief in “character, industry, strength and perseverance,” as the only way for women to fill their God-given position as the equal of men.

Dr. Cordua was associated with the San Diego Health Deaprtment for fifty-four years before retiring in 1958.