A pioneer of natural science re-emerges

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A pioneer of natural science  re-emerges

Maria Sibylla Merian, like many European women of the 17th century, stayed busy managing a household and rearing children. But on top of that, Maria, a German-born woman who lived in the Netherlands, also managed a successful career as an artist, botanist, naturalist and entomologist.

“She was a scientist on the level with a lot of people we spend a lot of time talking about,” said Kay Etheridge, a biologist at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, USA, who has been studying the scientific history of Maria’s work. “She didn’t do as much to change biology as Darwin, but she was significant.”

At a time when natural history was a valuable tool for discovery, Maria discovered facts about plants and insects that were not previously known. Her observations helped dispel the popular belief that insects spontaneously emerged from mud. The knowledge she collected over decades didn’t just satisfy those curious about nature, but also provided valuable insights into medicine and science. She was the first to bring together insects and their habitats, including food they ate, into a single ecological composition.

Exotic & valuable

After years of pleasing a captivated audience across Europe with books of detailed descriptions and life-size paintings of familiar insects, in 1699 she sailed with her daughter nearly 5,000 miles from the Netherlands to South America to study insects in the jungles of what is now known as Suriname. She was 52. The result was her magnum opus, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.

Before writing ‘Metamorphosis’, Maria spent decades documenting European plants and insects that she published in a series of books. She began in her 20s, making textless, decorative paintings of flowers with insects. “Then she got really serious,” Kay said. Maria started raising insects at home, mostly butterflies and caterpillars. The results of her decades worth of careful observations were detailed paintings and descriptions of European insects, followed by unconventional visuals and stories of insects, amphibians and reptiles from a land that most at the time could only imagine.

In her work, she revealed a side of nature so exotic, dramatic and valuable to Europeans of the time that she received much acclaim. But a century later, her findings came under scientific criticism. Shoddy reproductions of her work along with setbacks to women’s roles in 18th- and 19th-century Europe resulted in her efforts being largely forgotten. “It was kind of stunning when she sort of dropped off into oblivion,” Kay said.

Today, the pioneering woman of the sciences has re-emerged. In recent years, feminists, historians and artists have all praised Maria’s tenacity, talent and inspirational artistic compositions. And now biologists like Kay are digging into the scientific texts that accompanied her art. Three hundred years after her death, Maria will be celebrated at an international symposium in Amsterdam in June 2017. And recently, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium was republished. It contains 60 plates and original descriptions, along with stories about Maria’s life and updated scientific descriptions.

It may not have been ladylike to depict a giant spider devouring a hummingbird, but when Maria did it at the turn of the 18th century, surprisingly, nobody objected. Kay called it revolutionary. The image, which also contained novel descriptions of ants, captivated European audience that was more concerned with the exotic story unfolding before them than the gender of the person who painted it. “All of these things shook up their nice, neat little view,” Kay said. But later, people of the Victorian era thought differently. Her work had been reproduced, sometimes incorrectly.

A few observations were deemed impossible. “She’d been called a silly woman for saying that a spider could eat a bird,” Kay said. But Henry Walter Bates, a friend of Charles Darwin, observed it and put it in book in 1863, vindicating Maria. In this same plate, Maria depicted and described leaf-cutter ants for the first time. “In America, there are large ants which can eat whole trees bare as a broom handle in a single night,” she wrote in the description. Maria noted how the ants took the leaves below ground to their young. And she wouldn’t have known this at the time, but the ants use the leaves to farm fungi underground to feed their developing larvae.

Errors are common

Maria was correct about the bird-eating tarantula, ants building bridges with their bodies and other details. But in the same drawing, she incorrectly lumped together army and leaf-cutter ants. And instead of showing just the typical pair of eggs in a hummingbird nest, she painted four. She made other mistakes in Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium as well: not every caterpillar and butterfly matched. Perhaps one explanation for her mistakes is that she cut short her Suriname trip after getting sick, and completed the book at home in Amsterdam.

And errors are common among some of history’s most-celebrated scientific minds, too. “These errors no more invalidate Maria’s work than do well-known misconceptions published by Charles Darwin or Isaac Newton,” Kay wrote in a paper that argued that too many have wrongly focused on the mistakes of her work.

Maria’s paintings inspired artists and ecologists. In an 1801 engraving from his book, General Zoology Amphibia, George Shaw, an English botanist and zoologist, credited Maria for describing a frog in the account of her South American expedition, and named the young tree frog after her in his portrayal of it.

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