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Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude was the first woman to complete the degree requirements for a "first" in history at Oxford. But because degrees weren't awarded to ladies until the 20th century, she never actually got the sheepskin. But supported by a wealthy family and fascinated (as were many other English men and women of the time) with the "romantic" Orient, from 1892 until the beginning of the first World War she traveled around Middle East from Syria to Arabia to Persia (Iran) - an impressive feat for anyone particularly in a day when horse, donkey, or camel was the only unfettered mode of travel.

Gertrude wrote up her travels in a number of books, and by the start of World War I, her knowledge of the region, its people, language, and leaders was so extensive that she was taken into the foreign intelligence service. Stationed in Cairo, she worked with other (and male) Arabic specialists including T. E. Lawrence, the famed "Lawrence of Arabia". When the war was over, she settled in Baghdad and served as advisor to Sir Percy Cox in organzing the country. Reading how they set up the country - which groups should be in charge and such stuff, you certainly get a feeling (as Yogi Berra might have put it) of déjù vu all over again. As things (sort of) settled down and Iraq moved toward (British mandated) self-government, she was the leading force in establishing the Iraqi National Museum.

For more about the lady who was friend and advisor to presidents, prime ministers, and the occasional king click here.