Dorothea F. Bleek, anthropologist and linguist, was the daughter of Dr Wilhelm H.I. Bleek, an expert on Bushman languages, and his wife Jemina C. Lloyd. Her father died when she was still an infant, but his work was continued by his sister-in-law, Lucy C. Lloyd, through whom Dorothea also developed an interest in Bushman culture. With her mother and four older sisters she moved to Germany in 1884 and qualified as a teacher in Berlin. She returned to South Africa in 1904 and taught at the Rocklands Girls' High School in Cradock from 1905 to 1907. During this period she accompanied a fellow teacher, Helen Tongue, on several excursions to copy rock art in the Eastern Cape, Lesotho and Free State. They exhibited the copies at the Anthropological Institute in London in 1908 and Bleek contributed to the text of the resulting publication, Bushman paintings copied by Helen M. Tongue (1909).
Upon her return to South Africa Bleek began to study Bushman languages and culture under her aunt, Lucy Lloyd. From 1910 to 1930 she visited various parts of the Northern Cape, Bostwana, Namibia, Mpumalanga, Angola and Tanzania in search of remaining groups of Bushmen, studied and recorded their languages, and obtained their photographs and measurements for the director of the South African Museum, Dr L.A. Peringuey*. Her first trip was to the Northern Cape and Griqualand West (1910). The next year she studied the tribes of the lower Nossob River, accompanied by George Lennox* ("Scotty Smith") and visited a remnant of a Bushman tribe near Lake Chrissie in Mpumanlanga. Her work was interrupted by World War I (1914-1918) but during 1920-1921 she continued her studies in the southern Kalahari and in Namibia. On this expedition she was accompanied by James Drury*, who made casts of Bushmen for the South African Museum, but often she travelled with only an interpreter. On her trip into Angola in 1925 she and the botanist Mary A. Pocock travelled large distances on foot to visit various Bushman tribes. In 1930 she studied the remnants of Bushman languages and customs surviving among the people of the Ukalama district of Tanzania.
Bleek continued the work of her father and aunt on the /Xam Bushman materials in the Bleek and Lloyd collection. She learned the appropriate languages and translated many of the texts. Some publications were based on this material, for example, she edited a collection of Bushman folklore, The mantis and his friends (1923) and published some papers on "Beliefs and customs of the /Xam Bushmen" (Bantu Studies, 1932-1935).
From 1923 to 1948 Bleek was an honorary reader in Bushman languages at the University of Cape Town. In her ground-breaking work Comparative vocabularies of Bushman languages (Cambridge, 1929, 94 pp) she proposed a classification of the languages into three groups: Southern Bushman, spoken from the Cape to Mpumalanga, Central Bushmen, spoken in the eastern Kalahari, and Northern Bushman, spoken from the western Kalahari to southern Angola. Some of her papers on Bushman languages were published in German journals. In 1934 she started her most ambitious linguistic work, the completion of the /Xam dictionary started by her father. It was completed just before her death and published eight years later as A Bushman dictionary (1956). Unfortunately its many variant entries and its many dialects made it cumbersome to use.
Her studies of the Bushmen of Namibia were described in The Naron: A Bushman tribe of the central Kalahari (Cambridge, 1928, 67pp). This was the first relatively complete account of the Bushmen of a single tribe. Other remnant populations and traces of former populations were described in "Bushmen of central Angola" (Bantu Studies, 1927, Vol. 3(1), pp. 105-125) and "Traces of former Bushman occupation in Tanganyika Territory" (South African Journal of Science, 1931, Vol. 28, pp. 423-429).
Upon the death of her aunt, Bleek inherited the 151 notebooks of the Bleek and Lloyd collection (now in the library of the University of Cape Town). She also inherited the copies of rock paintings made by George W. Stow*, which her aunt had bought from Stow's widow. In 1928 she visited the Eastern Cape and Free State and found many of the original paintings copied by Stow. The next year she took 72 copies of Stow's drawings to London and had them published under the title Rock paintings in South Africa from parts of the Eastern Province and Orange Free State (by Stow & Bleek; London, 1930), with her notes on the conditions of the originals. From the proceeds she financed the copying of many rock paintings in the Western Cape, which she published in More rock paintings in South Africa from the coastal belt between Albany and Piquetberg (London, 1940).
Bleek was a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, served as president of Section E in 1932, and was awarded the association's South Africa Medal (gold) in 1941. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1932 and was a leading member of the South African Archaeological Society. She was an outstanding character, always ready to give help and encouragement to other field workers, and modest to the extent that she refused to accept an honorary doctorate offered her by the University of Cape Town because she did not want to appear to compete with the status of her father.