I have been very much neglecting the history part of my blog recently – I’ve rather lost my history blogging mojo. I’m currently trying a few things to get it back, and this is one of them.
Not only was International Women’s Day on the 8th of this month, apparently the whole month is Women’s History Month. Many bloggers are taking the cue to write about their favourite women from history, and ever the opportunist, I jumped onto the bandwagon. I intend to write about maybe not my ‘favourite women’, but at least women that I think you should know about.
As I said, I’ve been writing more about spiders than about history, so in order to facilitate a smooth transition to history, today I will stick with the creepy-crawly theme. Let me introduce you to Maria Sibylla Merian.
She was born in 1647 in Frankfurt, Germany, into a Swiss family. Her father was an engraver and publisher. He died when she was very young, and her stepfather, Jakob Marrel, was a painter of flowers and still lives. He encouraged her to paint, but where did her interest in insects come from? I don’t know, but she started to collect insects in her teens, kept silkworms and observed their lives and behaviour. She was particularly interested in the metamorphosis of butterflies and moths, and she collected all kinds of caterpillars to see what they would turn into. Not only that, but she also painted what she saw.
She continued to paint after her marriage, and she continued her observation of insects. Both combined resulted in her first book: ‘Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung’, a collection of engravings showing ‘the miraculous transformation and the curious flower diet of caterpillars’. The book was appreciated by its readers, but rather ignored by scientists, because it was written in German rather than Latin, the language of scientific publications at the time. It’s a shame it was ignored because while the life cycle of the butterfly was not unknown, nobody had observed it in such detail before and documented the observations in such realistic pictures. Merian’s book was special because it depicted its subjects in much more detail. Where previous works had illustrated the butterfly species with a picture of the adult, the caterpillar and the pupa each, Merian showed the variations between males and females, the differently coloured undersides of the wings and many more stages of their life cycles including the growing and moulting of the larvae. Another of her innovations was to show the insects with the plants they fed on, the holes in their leaves nibbled by caterpillars, and how adult butterflies and moths sucked nectar using a long proboscis. She also showed the eggs which the caterpillars hatched from. This was something many naturalists had missed so far. At the time it was still widely believed that insects (or at least their larvae) were spontaneously generated. Through careful observation and documentation Merian proved her contemporaries wrong.
In 1685 Merian moved into a Labadist commune in Friesland. The Labadists were a protestant community movement founded by Jean de Labadie. At that point she possibly had already left her husband or she left him now. At any rate, only her mother and her daughters moved in with the Labadists with her. Merian stayed for a few years, continued her nature studies and also learnt Latin.
In 1691 she moved to Amsterdam with her daughters. One of them married a merchant engaged in trade with Surinam, which was then a Dutch colony. This was an opportunity for Merian to travel to Surinam herself, which she did in 1699. Her purpose was to study the insects of Surinam. She spent two years there and in neighbouring countries, studying and recording the plant and insect life. When she came back, she published another book: Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (note: this time in Latin!).
Merian brought the same careful observation and artistic skills to bear on this book, which appeared in 1705. Again she described not only the insects as such, but their behaviour and their habitat. She came up with a classification system for the butterflies and moths and one for flies and bees, and used local names for the plants. One of these was ‘ananas’, still the German and Dutch word for pineapple. She recorded not only those but also beetles and ants, frogs, spiders, snakes and iguanas.
This was a truly pioneering work, and one should bear in mind how unusual it was for a woman at the time to make such a long journey for scientific purposes. She was however, at the time of her expedition, already part of the scientific community in Amsterdam, and her work was being noticed there and abroad. After her return from Surinam, she became even more widely known, well respected and sought out by scholars. Her work was of such high quality that Linnaeus based his classification of Surinam’s animals on her drawings. David Attenborough thinks she is one of the most significant entomologists .
While Merian’s significance is not in any doubt, work has only begun to re-evaluate that of her daughters, Johanna Helena Herolt and Dorothea Maria Graff. They were also talented artists and often collaborated with their mother. Because of that, though, they have often not been credited, but now works are slowly being re-attributed to their true creators.
I hope you enjoyed this introduction to an important woman of science. I hope to introduce you to some more before the end of Women’s History Month. Although – we don’t really need a special month to talk about amazing women, do we?