Dorothy Rayner, the second of three children, was raised in Teddington, Middlesex. After attending Bedales School, she matriculated in 1931 to read Natural Sciences at Girton College, Cambridge, where she distinguished herself as both an undergraduate and postgraduate student. In those pre-war years, Cambridge University had not yet begun to admit women as full graduates, so her First Class BA was awarded by Girton College in 1935. In the same year, Dorothy was a University Harkness Scholar and recipient of the G. G. B. Crewdson Memorial Prize. From 1936 to 1938, she was a Hertha Ayrton By-Fellow at Girton College, carrying out research in vertebrate palaeontology, primarily at Cambridge but also at University College, London. The University of Cambridge awarded her a doctorate in 1938. A Cambridge MA followed.

In 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, Dorothy took up a lecturing post in the Department of Geology, University of Leeds. Those exceptional times were to influence her profoundly throughout her career, since it was then that she developed her wonderful expertise in several different styles of teaching. In her first professional post, Dorothy suddenly found herself one of a staff of only three, shouldering one third of the entire teaching for an undergraduate course in Geology. Throughout this time, and indeed up to the 1960s, she taught all the stratigraphy and palaeontology, whilst also taking responsibility for her proportion of the field teaching. Dorothy's contribution to the Leeds department, during the early years of her career, cannot be understated.

The typically small groups of honours geology students benefited enormously from the tutorial style of teaching that Dorothy developed. She was affable and approachable, with a love of art, music and literature, as well as being exceptionally widely read on scientific matters. Her students still reminisce affectionately about those days. When confronted by a large audience, however, Dorothy took on a different persona. She had a remarkable stentorian voice that could be raised to prodigious levels, and which, when combined with her rapid, non-repetitive, highly organized, authoritative style of delivery, left her students enthralled and sometimes just a little exhausted. For them, re-organizing lecture notes in the evenings was the order of the day. The fact that several of ‘her’ students returned to take up teaching appointments during the post-war years of expansion bears witness to the strong influence that she exerted on a generation of Leeds students. She was promoted to Senior Lecturer in the early 1960s and retired from full time employment in 1977, having spent her entire career at one institution.

Dorothy never considered herself a ‘committee person’, but she was nevertheless frequently called upon to serve in this capacity. Under these circumstances, she was a woman of few words, but those words were always brilliantly chosen to bring any long, tortuous discussion to a satisfactory close. She could give the impression of being brusque, but to those who knew her Dorothy was supportive, warm and friendly with a well-developed sense of humour, whilst at the same time being perhaps a little shy.

Dorothy's long association with the Yorkshire Geological Society was of great importance to her. She joined during her first year in Leeds and remained a member up to her death. She became Principal Editor of the Proceedings in 1958, a post that she held for ten years, and was President during 1969-1970. She was elected to Honorary Membership in 1974, in recognition of the exceptional service she had bestowed upon the Society, and was awarded the Society's Sorby Medal in 1977, in acknowledgement of her contribution to the geological knowledge of Yorkshire and the north of England. As an editor, she was extremely effective, with a critical eye for detail and a reputation for being firm but fair. Her love of and ability with the English language was obvious, and after some gentle persuasion from her colleagues she committed to print her ‘English Language and Usage in Geology: a personal compilation’ (1982), published by the Leeds Geological Association, which became essential reading for geologists writing theses and research papers. Typically, all profits arising from this publication were donated to the LGA.

Following the publication in 1971 of her textbook, ‘The Stratigraphy of the British Isles’, Dorothy was recognized as a major authority in this field and was widely consulted on matters of stratigraphical procedure. Together with J. E. Hemingway, she co-edited the Society's ‘The Geology and Mineral Resources of Yorkshire’ in 1974. She also attracted several prestigious awards in acknowledgement of her high standing in the international scientific community and the exceptionally broad base of her knowledge. In addition to the Society's Sorby Medal, she received the Clough Medal from the Geological Society of Edinburgh in 1973, followed by the award of the Lyell Medal from the Geological Society of London in 1975. These honours were a fitting tribute to Dorothy around the time of her retirement.

In later years, Dorothy was able to pursue other passions in addition to her geology. One of her first ‘retirement projects’, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, combined her love of botany with her skills as a surveyor to prepare beautiful plant distribution maps for the Royal Horticultural Society of their large Harlow Carr Gardens site, near Harrogate.