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Clara Cynthia Benson was born June 5, 1875 at the family home, Terralta in Port Hope, the daughter of Judge Thomas Moore Benson (1833-1915) and his second wife, Laura Fuller Benson (1847-1928). Judge Benson’s first wife, Mary Edith (d. 1870) was the eldest daughter of Rev. John McCaul, President of University College. In addition to Clara, the Benson family consisted of two half sisters, Ethel Mary (b1867) and Emily Constance (b. 1869), her sister Jessie (b1880) and a brother, Thomas Bingley Fuller Benson (1876-1941).
Clara Benson received her early education at Port Hope High School and following graduation enrolled in University College at the University of Toronto. From 1895 to 1899 she studied math, chemistry and physics in the Faculty of Arts and was the first women to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry in 1899. She continued her studies as a graduate student in biochemistry and was one of only two women to be awarded a PhD in 1903. Her thesis “The rates of reactions in solutions containing ferrous and sulphate, potassium iodine and chromic acid” was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry in May, 1903. She was appointed to the faculty of the Lillian Massey School of Domestic Science and spent 1905-1906 as lecturer in physiological chemistry at the University. In 1906 she was appointed Associate Professor in the newly created Faculty of Household Science .and proceeded to develop the programme of study in food chemistry. In 1926 she was promoted to full professor and head of the Department of Food Chemistry, a position she held until her retirement. With Professor Annie Laird, principal and professor of Household Science, she left a lasting impact on this field of study. She retired as Professor Emeritus in 1945.
During her forty year career with the University of Toronto, Dr. Benson was involved in many aspects of university life in particular and the community in general. Among her academic achievements was recognition for her work in food chemistry during the World War I. She discovered that explosives could be analyzed in the same manner as the chemistry of foods. “Her methods established the accepted technique for analysis in munitions laboratories.” In 1921 she became the first president of the Women’s Athletic Association at the University of Toronto, position she held until her retirement in 1945. One of the main goals of the WAA was the construction of a women’s athletic centre, a goal that wasn’t achieved for 38 years. In 1959 she returned to the University to unveil a plaque commemorating the opening of the Benson Building, named in her honour. Other honours bestowed on her included the establishment of a scholarship in her name in 1950 sponsored by the Household Science alumnae, and the presentation of a portrait by Yousef Karsh, which was hung in the Household Science building. In 1992, the Canadian Society for Chemistry established the Clara Benson Award, awarded annually to a woman who has made a distinguished contribution to chemistry while working in Canada.
She was also very involved in the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) serving on its national board. After her retirement in 1945, her work on the YWCA led to her interest in sponsoring two young French girls, Madeleine Killian and Maryse Deslandes, orphaned during World War II. One of her major interests was the making of films such as the visit of the King and Queen and the University campus. She was also involved in her local church in Port Hope, and an avid stamp collector. She died in Port Hope on March 24, 1964