In the same way that women have challenged ideas in art, information technology, education, entertainment and politics they have also had major triumphs in scientific development, not least making scientific subjects more accessible to all. Here we start in the seventeenth century by celebrating the achievements of Maria Sibylla Merian a naturalist and scientific illustrator, who contributed greatly to the science of entymology; Émilie du Châtelet, a mathematical genius, who, in the eighteenth-century wrote a paper on the nature of infra red radiation and translated into French Newton’s celebrated Principia Mathematica. Finally, moving to the nineteenth century, we recognise the work of Mary Somerville, who translated into English highly technical mathematical and astronomical papers into a language that could be understood by a wider audience.
Maria Sibylla Merian – April 2, 1647 – January 13, 1717
Anna Maria Sibylla Merian was a naturalist and scientific illustrator who studied plants and insects and made detailed paintings about them. Her detailed observations and documentation of the metamorphosis of the butterfly make her a significant, albeit not well known, contributor to entomology.
Maria Sibylla Merian was born April 2, 1647, into the family of Swiss engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian the Elder. Her father died three years later and in 1651 her mother married still life painter Jacob Marell. Marell encouraged Merian to draw and paint. At the age of 13 she painted her first images of insects and plants from specimens she had captured.
“In my youth, I spent my time investigating insects. At the beginning, I started with silk worms in my home town of Frankfurt. I realised that other caterpillars produced beautiful butterflies or moths, and that silk worms did the same. This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to see how they changed.” Foreword from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium — Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam.
In 1665 Merian married Marell’s apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff. Two years later she had her first child, Johanna Helena, and the family moved to Nuremberg. While living there, Maria Sibylla continued painting, working on parchment and linens, and creating designs for embroidery patterns. She took on many students which helped the family financially, and increased their social standing. This provided her with access to the finest gardens, maintained by the wealthy and elite.
In those gardens, Merian began studying insects, particularly the lifecycle of caterpillars and butterflies. The scholars of the time believed that insects came from “spontaneous generation of rotting mud“, an Aristotelian idea encouraged by the Catholic Church, which described insects as “beasts of the devil.” Against the prevailing opinion, Merian studied what actually happened in the transformation of caterpillars into beautiful butterflies. She took note of the transformations, along with the details of the chrysalises and plants that they used to feed themselves, and illustrated all the stages of their development in her sketch book.
This book of sketches turned into her first book, the first edition of which was sold in 1675 at the age of 28 under the title Neues Blumenbuch [New book of flowers]. In 1678 her second daughter, Dorotha Maria, was born, and one year later she published another book called Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung [The Caterpillar, Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food]. In this book she presented the stages of development of different species of butterflies along with the plants on which they fed.
In 1681 Jacob Marrell died and the Graff family returned to Frankfort in 1683 to handle the estate, including the house, art work, library and financial issues left unresolved at the time of his death. A lawsuit was filed by the fractured factions of the families. Upon its resolution in 1685, at the age of 38, Merian left her husband. Accompanied by her mother and daughters, she moved to the Labadist religious commune in Friesland, whose practices included celibacy. The family moved into a home owned by Cornelis van Sommelsdijk, the governor of Surinam. Here she studied the world of South American tropical flora and fauna.
Five years later her mother died and she moved to Amsterdam. Merian’s husband divorced her two years later, in 1692. In Amsterdam Merian and her work attracted the attention of various contemporary scientists. Her older daughter, Johanna Helena, married merchant Jacob Herolt and moved with him to Surinam, which was at that time a recently acquired Dutch colony.
In 1699 the city of Amsterdam sponsored Merian to travel to Surinam along with her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria. Before departing, she wrote:
“In Holland, I noted with much astonishment what beautiful animals came from the East and West Indies. I was blessed with having been able to look at both the expensive collection of Doctor Nicolaas Witsen, mayor of Amsterdam and director of the East Indies society, and that of Mr. Jonas Witsen, secretary of Amsterdam. Moreover I also saw the collections of Mr. Fredericus Ruyusch, doctor of medicine and professor of anatomy and botany, Mr. Livinus Vincent, and many other people. In these collections I had found innumerable other insects, but finally if here their origin and their reproduction is unknown, it begs the question as to how they transform, starting from caterpillars and chrysalises and so on. All this has, at the same time, led me to undertake a long dreamed of journey to Suriname.” Foreword in Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.
Merian worked in Surinam for two years, travelling around the colony and sketching local animals and plants. She also criticized the way Dutch planters treated Amerindian and black slaves. She recorded local native names for the plants and described local uses. In 1701 malaria forced her to return to Netherlands.
Back in the Netherlands she sold specimens she had collected and published a collection of engravings about the life in Surinam. In 1705 she published a book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium about the insects of Surinam.
In 1715 Merian suffered a stroke and was partially paralysed. She continued her work but the disease probably affected her ability to work; a later registry lists her as a pauper.
Maria Sibylla Merian died in Amsterdam on January 13, 1717. Her daughter Dorothea published Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis, a collection of her mother’s work, posthumously.
In the last years of the 20th century, the work of Merian has been rediscovered and recognised. For example, her portrait was printed on the 500 DM note before Germany converted to the Euro. Her portrait has also appeared on a 0.40 DM stamp, released on September 17, 1987, and many schools are named after her. In 2005, a modern research vessel named Maria S. Merian was launched at Warnemünde, Germany.
Merian worked as a botanic artist. She published three collections of engravings of plants in 1675, 1677 and 1680. Afterwards she studied insects, keeping her own live specimens, and made drawings about insect metamorphosis. In her time, it was very unusual that someone would be genuinely interested in insects, which had a bad reputation and were colloquially called “beasts of the devil.” As a consequence of their reputation, the metamorphosis of these animals was largely unknown. Merian described the life cycles of 186 insect species, amassing evidence that contradicted the contemporary notion that insects were “born of mud” by spontaneous generation.
Moreover, although certain scholars were aware of the process of metamorphosis from the caterpiller to the butterfly, the majority of people did not understand the process.
The work that Anna Maria Sibylla Merian published, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung [The Caterpillar, Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food], was very popular in certain sections of high society as a result of being published in the vernacular. However, it is notable that her work was largely ignored by scientists of the time because the official language of science was still Latin.
Merian also described many other details of the evolution and lifecycle of the insects she observed. She could, for example, show that each stage of the change from caterpillar to butterfly depended on a small number of plants for its nourishment. As a consequence the eggs were laid near these plants.
Her work places her among one of the first naturalists to have observed insects directly. This approach gave her much more insight into their lives and was contrary to the way that most scientists worked at the time.
The pursuit of her work in Suriname was an unusual endeavour, especially for a woman. In general, men travelled in the colonies to find insects, make collections and to work there, or to settle. Scientific expeditions at this period of time were almost totally unknown and the work of Merian raised many eyebrows. She succeeded, however, in discovering a whole range of previously unknown animals and plants in the interior of Surinam. Merian spent time studying and classifying her findings and described them in great detail. Her classification of butterflies and moths is still relevant today. She used Native American names to refer to the plants, which became used in Europe:
“I created the first classification for all the insects which had chrysalises, the daytime butterflies and the nighttime moths. The second classification is that of the maggots, worms, flies and bees. I retained the indigenous names of the plants, because they were still in use in America by both the locals and the Indians”. Foreword of Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.
Her drawings of plants, snakes, spiders, iguanas and tropical beetles are still collected today by amateurs all over the world. The German word Vogelspinne — mygalomorphae, translated literally as bird spider — probably has its origins in an engraving by Maria Sibylla Merian. The engraving, created from sketches drawn in Surinam, shows a large spider who had just captured a bird. However to this day, no cases are known of a mygalomophae hunting a bird.
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