Thursday, April 30, 2015

A word from the ladies: Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian, Lepidopterist and Artist

Maria Sibylla Merian c. 1700, 
Copperplate by Jacobus Houbraken 
from a portrait by Georg Gsell
Written by Kristen Gilpin

Born 1647 in Frankfurt.
Died 1717 in Amsterdam.

S.T.E.A.M. Powers: 

  • Botanical illustrator
  • Entomological illustrator
  • Scientific author writing in local language, rather than Latin to make her work more accessible.
  • Worked from live specimens of insects rather than preserved versions and often reared her own specimens to entirely observe life cycle.
  • Scientific explorer

Her Story...

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt, a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire. This middle class young lady was a child of a family of printers and artists and she started training in painting at a young age, under the tutelage of her step-father and several of his apprentices. In addition to painting the flowers and insects that she found beautiful, she also began to collect insects, especially butterflies. Marian would carefully rear the larvae she collected and study the butterflies during each stage of their lives and record the process of their metamorphosis in her paintings.

Merian married her father's apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff and moved to his home city of Nuremberg. The couple had two daughters, Dorothea Maria and Johanna Helena. Maria Sibylla and Graff separated and Maria Sibylla and her daughters moved to a Labadist religious colony for a time.

Illuminated Copper engraving 
from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 
Plate IX. Maria Sibylla Merian, 1705
 A Great Journey: In 1699, Maria Sibylla and her daughter Dorothea Maria took passage on a ship to the Dutch colony of Surinam. Paid for in part by the sale of their belongings and in part as a grant from the city of Amsterdam, these two women explorers traveled across the Atlantic to the eastern coast of South America in a time when women rarely traveled without family and even more rarely as scientific explorers.

While in Surinam, Maria Sibylla and her daughter collected insects of all kinds and reared them to observe their full life cycles. Maria Sibylla used the names provided by the indigenous people and often paid them to bring her insects that she had not yet seen. Due to concerns of health and a possible case of Malaria, Maria Sibylla had to return to Amsterdam two years later. After her return, she published her masterwork: The Insects of Suriname.

In her lifetime, Maria Sibylla depicted and illustrated the life-cycle of 186 species. Both of her daughters, Dorothea Maria and Johanna Helena, also became accomplished illustrators and together, the three ensured that women illustrators could produce works as fine as any man. Maria Sibylla wrote not in the accepted language of science, Latin, but rather in the vernacular, which allowed public at large to find a better understanding of the life of insects. She left a lasting legacy of curiosity, knowledge and beauty that is still celebrated today.

Learn More:

Books by Merian:
Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 
Plate XX

Books about Merian and her Work:

Books about Maria Sibylla Merian for Children:

Online resources

Elizabeth Britton, Bryologist

Written by Kristen Gilpin

Born: 1858
Died: 1934

S.T.E.A.M. Powers:
  • Botanist
  • Bryologist (Study of mosses)
  • Preservation of native North American Wildflowers
  • Co-Founded the New York Botanical Garden
  • Listed as one of the top 1000 scientists, and was one of only 19 women listed in the publication "American Men of Science"
  • Honorary Curator of Mosses at the New York Botanical Garden
Her Story...

Elizabeth Gertrude Knight was born in 1858 to James and Sophie Anne Knight in New York City. As a child, she spent her time between New York City and her family's sugar plantation and furniture factory in Matanzas, Cuba. Elizabeth graduated from Normal (later Hunter) College at the Early age of just 17 and then joined the staff of the college as a critic teacher and tutor.

In 1879 Elizabeth joined the Torrey Botanical Society which studied the flora of New York City and it's surrounding lands. As a member, she began publishing papers in the Society's Bulletin. By 1883, she was a known bryologist, a scientist specializing in mosses. During these years with the Torrey Botanical society, Elizabeth met and later married Nathaniel Lord Britton, a fellow botanist and taxonomist.

Nathaniel Lord Britton was a professor of Geology at Columbia College (now Columbia University) in New York City. Elizabeth became acquainted with the Botany department and was soon given charge of the department's collection of mosses. Through physically collecting mosses and purchasing collections from other bryologists, Elizabeth was able to establish an impressive collection.

Working together, the Brittons helped to gather support for an lead the charge on the creation of the New York Botanical Garden, of which Nathaniel served as the first director. Elizabeth was presented with the title Honorary Curator of Mosses and oversaw the move of the botanical collection of Columbia College to the New York Botanical Garden, including the mosses she had been carefully collecting.

In addition to the study of mosses, Elizabeth Britton was also a devotee of native plants and helped to found the Wild Flower Preservation Society of America. This society was one of the first of its kind, working to preserve endangered wildflowers. She was also one of the founders and later president ofthe Sullivent Moss society, which later became the American Bryological and Lichenological Society, which is still active today.

In their later years, the couple was studying the flora of Puerto Rico. Both Elizabeth and Nathaniel died in 1934, within months of each other and the pair were interred at the Moravian Cemetery in New Dorp, Staten. The moss genus Bryobrittonia was named in honor of the "Mother of American Bryology", as were 15 other species.
Photo credit: Lisa Vargues via the Plant Talk Blog

Elizabeth Britton published 346 papers and articles, and 170 of those were about her favored topic, mosses. The standard botanical author abbreviation for her words is "E. Britton"
Vintage postcard showing the greenhouse at the
New York Botanical Garden
Learn More:

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Alice Ball, Chemist

Written by Jill M. Staake

Alice Augusta Ball, 1915
Born: July 24, 1892, Seattle, Washington
Died: December 31, 1916, Seattle, Washington

S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • Developed the chemistry behind the first modern treatment for leprosy
  • First woman and African-American to receive a Master's Degree from the University of Hawaii

Her Story

You've most likely heard of leprosy, the chronic infection also called Hansen's Disease that causes skin lesions and more. You've probably even heard of Moloka'i, the Hawaiian island where lepers were isolated to die a miserable death. But chances are good you've never heard of chaulmoogra oil, and chances are even better you didn't know that a woman named Alice Ball was responsible for the chemistry involved in making this oil the first effective treatment for leprosy,

A Born Chemist
Alice Ball was born in 1892, into a family in which chemistry already had its importance. Her father and particularly her grandfather (James Bell, Sr.) were photographers, and young Alice likely spent time in their darkrooms watching as chemical baths brought forth pictures seemingly from nowhere. It was probably no surprise to her family when 18-year-old Alice graduated Seattle High School with high grades in the sciences, and chose to attend the University of Washington to study chemistry. By the time she graduated four years later, Alice had Bachelor's Degrees in both pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy. With scholarship offers from both UC Berkeley and the University of Hawaii, Alice chose to continue her studies in Honolulu.

Hawaii wasn't entirely new for Alice. She and her family had lived there for a year when she was younger, in the hopes of helping her grandfather's painful rheumatoid arthritis. He died only a year later, though, and the family returned to Washington. Alice must have remembered that year in Hawaii with affection, and now embarked on her continuing education there. While receiving her Master's Degree in chemistry, she was also quietly breaking down barriers - she became the first woman and and the first African-American to receive this advanced degree from the University of Hawaii.

While working on her Master's thesis about the "Chemical Constituents of Piper Methysticum" (kava), Alice received a request from Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, an assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii. Hollmann was working with chaulmoogra oil, long used as a traditional remedy for treating leprosy in China and India. Although it showed some promise, there were many barriers to making this treatment practical, and Hollman hoped Alice could help him figure out the chemistry involved.

Leprosy sufferers in Hawaii. Photo via NPS Archives.
Hope For The Hopeless
Leprosy and Hawaii might seem like an odd mix, but Hawaii was just one of many places at the time that mandated that infected persons be isolated from the rest of the population. Though it might not seem like a hardship to be left marooned on a Hawaiian island, the leper colony at Kalaupapa was no paradise. The spit of land was surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean, and divided from the rest of the island by towering and impenetrable cliffs. Infected people were left there to die, and for many years they had no shelters other than what they could build themselves, and food provided every week or so by boat from the mainland. It was a miserable existence for people already suffering from a miserable disease, and it was widely accepted that colonies like these were not an acceptable way of treating the ill.

Hydnocarpus wrightianus
Photo by Anoopmail via Wikipedia
So doctors were excited to learn of chaulmoogra oil, which came from the nut of the Hydnocarpus wightianus tree and seemed to have real potential for helping relieve the suffering of those with leprosy. The problem was, they had no good way to administer the oil effectively. Applying it topically didn't seem to do much good. Giving it by mouth general resulted in intense nausea and burning in the stomach. And injecting it under the skin only created large abscesses. The oils were so dense that they were unable to mix with the water in the body, and instead merely stayed under the surface, often causing the patient more pain rather than helping.

Dr. Hollman knew if he could find a way to make the injectable version more water-soluble, chaulmoogra oil had real potential to help patients. Other chemists had tried, to no avail. So Alice set to work, attempting to isolate the ethyl esters of the fatty acids in the oil. At age 23, Alice developed the "Ball Method", which would allow chaulmoogra oil to be injected and absorbed by the body. In the following years, pharmaceutical companies processed using the Ball Method and created excellent injectable medications that returned many leprosy patience to such good health they were allowed to leave their isolation colonies and return home to their families.

It was an astounding achievement, for a chemist of any gender or race - but as often happened to female scientists, it was to be many years before her contributions would be acknowledged.

A Life Cut Short
Medical professionals prepare
chaulmoogra oil for injection in 1928
By 1916, Alice was beginning to show signs of illness. Eventually, these were severe enough that she resigned her position at the University of Hawaii (where she had become the first African-American chemistry professor), and returned to Seattle. History seems uncertain what illness ailed her; her death certificate lists "tuberculosis", but oddly, it was altered. A newspaper at the time indicated she might have accidentally inhaled chlorine gas while performing experiments in her classroom, which could also have led to her death. No matter the cause, a very promising young scientist was dead at age 24.

This tragedy was compounded by the way her research was treated after her death. Her mentor, University of Hawaii President Dr. Arthur Lyman Dean, published her research under his own name, even calling the process Alice invented the "Dean Method". It was 90 years before Alice's work was recognized. In 2000, the University of Hawaii placed a plaque to honor her on the school's chaulmoogra tree, and her contributions were finally brought to the attention of the wider world.

Today, leprosy is curable with a regular drug regimen, and leper colonies are no longer in use in most of the world. We also know that leprosy isn't nearly as contagious as once feared, though in some parts of the world it continues to pose a problem. In remote areas where drugs aren't readily available, some doctors still use the Ball Method to prepare chaulmoogra oil to help their leprosy patients. The work of a brilliant young chemist, cut short in her prime, still has the ability to improve lives one hundred years later - a legacy worth admiring.

Learn More:

Maria Martin Bachman, Natural Science Artist

Written by Jill M. Staake

Born: July 3, 1796, Charleston, South Carolina
Died: December 18, 1863, Columbia, South Carolina

S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • Natural Science Artist
  • Painted many of the plants and insects that appear in John Audubon's famous works

Her Story

Like many women of her time and place, Maria Martin Bachman was brought up to be an ornamental part of the background. A woman of genteel birth in the antebellum South, Maria was given an excellent education in classic literature, French, drawing, and even some of the natural sciences. Still, the expectation was that she would simply marry and raise a family, using the knowledge gained in her youth only for her own enjoyment and the education of her children in years to come. That she went on to contribute to some of the most famous paintings ever created is a testament to her own talent, as well as a bit of luck for being in the right place at the right time.

Circle of Naturalists
In the years before the Civil War, Charleston had a group of men who were interested in science, though mainly with finding a way to reconcile the origin of species with the stories told in the Bible. However, their studies of the natural world brought them in contact with early scientists from around the country, including John J. Audubon, who came to Charleston in 1831. He became close with John Bachman, who was married at the time to Maria's sister Harriet, a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. Audubon visited Charleston often, nearly always staying with the Bachman family.

Maria, as the younger sister, lived with the Bachmans to help care for the family, and so became part of this special friendship. (Harriet died in 1846, and Maria and John married several years later.) Audubon found the entire family willing and eager to help with his studies of birds, and Maria's talent was especially apparent. He encouraged her to sketch birds, offering instruction and feedback. Eventually, he suggested she begin painting flowers and insects as well, and soon discovered her skills here surpassed even his own. In 1833, he wrote to his son, "Miss Martin with her superior talents, assists us greatly in the way of drawing; the insects she has drawn are, perhaps, the best I've seen."

Maria painted the flowers and painted lady butterfly shown alongside
Townsend's Bunting, now known as the Dickcissel.
Part of the Background
Audubon's paintings of birds were unique, as he placed them in real-life situations showing their interactions with their surroundings. However, as he was most interested in working with the birds themselves (mostly painted from taxidermied specimens), he was glad to have someone like Maria provide the trees, flowers, and insects that make his paintings into such special works of art. Maria painted the flowers and insects that appear in 18 of Audubon's Birds of America (see them all here).

One of the paintings on which Maria collaborated is that of Bachman's Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii), named for her husband and now considered most likely extinct due to habitat loss. The warbler is shown perched on a branch of Franklinia alatamaha, a rare tree with a limited native habitat and named for Benjamin Franklin. Maria also painted Bachman's Sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis), another species named for John Bachman.

Maria herself was honored by Audubon in plate 417 of the Birds of America. He named Maria's Woodpecker for her (Picus martinae), though this is now considered a subspecies of the Hairy Woodpecker and no longer bears her name.
In honouring this species with the name of Miss MARIA MARTIN, I cannot refrain from intimating the respect, admiration, and sincere friendship which I feel towards her, and stating that, independently of her other accomplishments, and our mutual goodwill, I feel bound to make some ornithological acknowledgment for the aid she has on several occasions afforded me in embellishing my drawings of birds, by adding to them beautiful and correct representations of plants and flowers. (Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. v. P. 181.)
Beyond Birds
Image courtesy of the Charleston Museum
Maria's work with Audubon's birds was not the limit of her career by any means. She engaged in a serious study of America's insect species, using Say's The Entomology of North America for studies and creating her own works as well. She contributed to The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, a joint work by her husband and Audubon, as well as to the first major work on American herpetology. In most cases, her work was uncredited and anonymous. Her family preserved her work where possible, but many of their belongings were lost to the destruction of the Civil War years. Those works that remain are now housed in the Charleston Museum.

Maria died in 1863, and was largely forgotten for many years. Like the beautiful artwork she provided for Audubon and others, her very existence was relegated to the background. In recent years, though, her contributions have been rediscovered, and her name brought to the forefront at last.

Learn More about Maria Martin Bachman

Caroline Herschel, Astronomer

Written by Jill M. Staake

March 16, 1750 - January 9, 1848
Hanover, Prussia (Germany) and Slough, England

Caroline Herschel 1829, by M. F. Tielemanm 
S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • Astronomer
  • Discovered eight comets
  • Assisted her brother William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus, as the first paid female astronomer
  • First female member of the Royal Astronomical Society (with Mary Somerville)
  • Received the Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Gold Medal for Science from the King of Prussia

Her Story...

When astronomer Caroline Herschel died at the age of 97 in 1848, her gravestone was engraved with the epitaph she herself had written:
...The eyes of her who passed to glory, while below turned to the starry heavens; her own discoveries of the comets and her share in the immortal labours of her Brother, William Herschel, bear witness of this to later ages...
But this remarkable woman left more behind than a beautifully composed elegy; she had the discovery of eight comets to her name, a Gold Medal for Science from the King of Prussia, and the honor of being one of the first two female members of the Royal Astronomical Society. She was well-recognized by her colleagues in the natural sciences as a fine astronomer and scientist, and corresponded regularly with contemporaries such as Alexander von Humboldt and Joseph Banks. Her steadfast assistance to her astronomer brother William Herschel led to a steady paycheck from the King of England, and there is even a crater on the moon named for her. Like so  many great men and women, though, she started from very humble beginnings.

Caroline's signature (her given name in German was Carolina) from her music books. via Yale Library 
Per Aspera Ad Astera
Born in Hanover in 1750 as the fifth of six children in a musical family, Caroline's childhood was not very promising. A bout with typhus at the age of ten left her with a scarred face and stunted growth; her biographers note she was less than five feet tall. Her father attempted to provide her with some education, but her mother felt it was unnecessary for her to learn much beyond basic reading and writing. After the death of her father, Caroline's mother reluctantly agreed to allow her to follow in the musical footsteps of her father and brothers, who were all well-known and successful musicians. Caroline joined her brother William, who had moved to Bath in England, and began to study singing.

An advertisement for a concert where Caroline Herschel performed
This was, without a doubt, the turning point of her life. She became a successful concert singer, but soon discovered that her brother was much more devoted to his hobby as an astronomer than his job as a music teacher. Caroline, being devoted mainly to William, joined him as his assistant, and two amazing astronomical careers were launched.

"I Am Hooked!"
Being the assistant to an astronomer was a less than glamorous job. In the beginning, Caroline mainly served as a note-taker and secretary for William as he studied the sky night after night, sitting faithfully by his side in all weathers. He progressed from early smaller telescopes to much larger ones, building a 20-foot telescope that required the astronomer to sit on a high platform to make observations while assistants below made adjustments and took notes. By 1782, William was made King's Astronomer to King George III, and by 1787, Caroline had been granted her own salary of 50 pounds per year to serve as William's assistant.
Salary letter from King George III,
via Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Caroline was invaluable to her brother, remaining at William's side through cold nights and illnesses. Her dedication is best expressed by the happenings one cold night in December 1783.
My brother, at the front of the telescope, directed me to make some alteration in the lateral motion, which was done by machinery, on which the point of support of the tube and mirror rested. At each end of the machine or trough was an iron hook, such as butchers use for hanging their joints upon, and having to run in the dark on ground covered a foot deep with melting snow, I fell on one of these hooks, which entered my right leg above the knee. My brother's call, "Make haste!" I could only answer by a pitiful cry, "I am hooked!"
William and the workmen immediately came to her rescue, but as Caroline noted, "they could not lift me without leaving nearly two ounces of my flesh behind." Caroline hobbled around for weeks while it healed, but her main concern seems to have been the effect on her brother's work: "I had, however, the comfort to know that my brother was no loser through this accident, for the remainder of the night was cloudy."

William Herschel's 20-foot scope. Caroline would have remained on the ground to take notes and make adjustments.

The Comet Sweeper
By now, Caroline was hooked in more than one way on astronomy. Her brother had given her own seven-foot Newtonian telescope earlier in 1783, and when she wasn't needed by him for other astronomical tasks, she spent hours each night "sweeping" the sky to look for comets. Her first concern was still William and his needs: "I began to use the new Newtonian small sweeper... but it could hardly be expected that I should meet with any comets in the part of the heavens where I swept, for I generally chose my situation by the side of my brother's instrument, that I might be ready to run to the clock or write down memorandums."

Caroline's sweeper telescope
photo by Geni via Wikipedia
In 1786, though, her own work suddenly vaulted her into the spotlight. It began with a simple note in her diary on August 1: "This evening I saw an object which I believe will prove to-morrow night to be a comet." She waited anxiously through a day of poor weather on the 2nd, but by 1:00 in the morning, the skies were clear enough for her to be able to say, "The object of last night is a comet." Her use of italics is all that betrays what must have been almost unbearable suspense and excitement.

William was out of town at the time, but Caroline was well used to corresponding with other scientists of the age. She sent several letters asking for others to help confirm her sighting, which they quickly did. Friends and colleagues delighted in the discovery, perhaps especially so because it was made by Caroline herself, rather than her brother. Fellow astronomer Alex Aubert wrote: "I am more pleased than you can well conceive that you have made it, and I think I see your wonderfully clever and wonderfully amiable brother, upon the news of it, shed a tear of joy. You have immortalized your name."

In the years ahead, Caroline would discover seven more comets, bringing her total to eight. She also was the first to document several important nebulae and star clusters. Contemporaries like Messier documented dozens of new astronomical objects in their lifetimes, but much of Caroline's own time was taken up by work for her brother. The time she had to focus on her own work was limited, but she accomplished much and was well-respected by her peers. Sir Joseph Banks, head of the Royal Society, wrote to her on the discovery of her third comet: "I am always happy to hear from you, but never more so than when you give me an opportunity of expressing my obligations to you for advancing the science you cultivate with so much success."

Caroline's notes on her first comet discovery. via Royal Astronomical Society / Science Photo Library
Astronomical Merit
In 1788, William Herschel married, and Caroline left him to live on her own for the first time. She continued to work with him closely, but had more time to focus on her own discoveries. William died in 1822, and Caroline made a somewhat startling choice - she left England, which had been her home for decades, and returned to Hanover, the city of her birth. She maintained a close relationship with her nephew, William's son John, who was an admirable astronomer and scientist in his own right, and continued to be revered in the scientific community.

Despite the scientific community's great respect for
her, Caroline's interest were still mocked by some,
as in this cartoon drawn in 1785.
via The Herschel Museum of Astronomy
Caroline spent years working on a catalog of 2,500 nebulae William had charted in his lifetime, and in 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her the Gold Medal for this work. It was the first time a woman had been so honored - and it wouldn't be until 1996 that another woman (Vera Rubin) received the honor again. In 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society went one step further, naming her one of their first female members (along with Mary Somerville), noting: "that while the tests of astronomical merit should in no case be applied to the works of a woman less severely than to those of a man, the sex of the former should no longer be an obstacle to her receiving any acknowledgment which might be held due to the latter."  In 1838, the Royal Irish Academy also elected her as an honorary member.

In 1846, her homeland also honored her. At the age of 96, she received the Gold Medal for Science from the King of Prussia. By this time, she had grown somewhat feeble, and the end of her life was near. She continued in good humor, though, as is evidenced by a quote from a letter written by a friend to her nephew: "[She] did not quite like old age with its weaknesses and infirmities, but...she too sometimes laughed at the world, [and] liked her meals." At age 97, she died peacefully at home, and her funeral was held in the same church where she had been christened nearly a century earlier. She was buried, at her request, with her father's almanac and a lock of her brother William's hair.

Riding The Polished Lenses
Caroline Herschel's name is sadly little known now outside the astronomical community, and sometimes even within. (An episode of the TV show Cosmos, which aired in 2014, covered the lives and accomplishments of William and John Herschel without even mentioning her name once.) But she is certainly not forgotten entirely. One of the comets she discovered bears her name (35P/Herschel-Rigollet), and she even has a crater on the moon named for her.

The poet Adrienne Rich wrote her poem Planetarium with Caroline in mind (See the full text here.). Her words paint the portrait of a hard-working woman, one with her feet firmly on the cold and snowy ground, but with a mind that soared among the stars - a legacy that Caroline surely deserves.
...a woman     ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments
or measuring the ground with poles’
she whom the moon ruled
like us
levitating into the night sky
riding the polished lenses... 

Learn More about Caroline Herschel

Other Books:

Eleanor Glanville, Entomologist

Written by Jill M. Staake

c. 1654 - 1709
Somerset, England

S.T.E.A.M. Powers:

  • Entomologist and Lepidopterist
  • One of only two British entomologists to have a native British butterfly named for them - the Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia)

Her Story...

Tickenham Court, where Lady Glanville lived and worked
When Eleanor Glanville was born at Tickenham Court in England in 1654, it wasn't just unusual for a woman to be interested in the natural sciences - it could be downright dangerous. In her lifetime, her "unnatural" behavior of catching butterflies and beating bushes to collect "wormes" was a great source of gossip among neighbors, and after her death her interest in caterpillars and butterflies would be used to set aside her will on the grounds that she suffered from madness when she wrote it. 

Noblest Collection
Today, though, Eleanor Glanville is remembered for much more than "odd" behavior. She created such an impressive collection of British butterflies that her male contemporaries at the time were astonished, saying she possessed "the noblest collection of butterflies, all English, which has sham'd us." Though much of her collection has been lost to the ages, at least a few specimens still survive hundreds of years later in collections at the Natural History Museum in London. 

Perhaps more importantly, Eleanor's collections were instrumental in helping to document the variety of British butterfly species. She formed a close friendship with James Petiver (1660 - 1718), a London pharmacist and naturalist who shared her great interest in lepidoptera. He used many of the species in her collections to create an illustrated catalog of British insects (Gazophylacium naturae artis, 1709), and even credited her in his text for one of the species.

Eleanor likely used a "clap net" like
 the one shown on the left in this image
from British Buttteflies (1862)
Collecting "Wormes"
Eleanor wasn't just interested in collecting and preserving specimens, though. She wanted to know more about the entire life cycle of butterflies. It was already known that caterpillars turned into butterflies via a pupal stage. What was less certain was just where those caterpillars came from in the first place. Many naturalists at the time believed in "spontaneous generation;" they believed that maggots simply arose out of dead flesh or, in the case of butterflies, that caterpillars emerged from the leaves they were found eating. Eleanor was unconvinced, though, and decided she needed to study living specimens to learn more.

She worked with local girls, calling them her apprentices, to collect as many caterpillars as they could. She and her helpers could be seen combing through bushes and lifting leaves of plants to look for caterpillars (often in states of dress not considered proper for "ladies" of the day). Neighbors reported the women would spread sheets beneath the shrubs and then beat them with long poles to catch the "wormes" that fell off, and she was also known to pay local children who brought her caterpillars for study.

Her goal with the collection of these caterpillars was to raise them to adulthood, studying their behavior, including the seeming magic of metamorphosis. Her workrooms were filled with jars holding different species of caterpillars, munching away on the food plants she provided. She documented her progress, providing some of the earliest known writings about rearing butterflies. (It's interesting to note that her methods of collection and rearing are nearly identical to the process we at MOSI Outside use today. If she were to walk into our Entomology Lab, the tanks of feeding caterpillars would feel very familiar to her, though she would likely envy our ability to control the temperature and humidity somewhat.)

Deprived of Her Senses
In her later years, Eleanor's oldest son Forest turned against her, laying the foundation for the overturning of her will. Neighbors turned out in large numbers to testify to her strange behavior over the years. Forest himself testified that his mother believed her children had been turned into fairies. The judge in the case eventually sided with Forest, overturning Eleanor's will on the grounds that "None but those deprived of their senses would go in pursuit of butterflies."

Despite the attitude of others, all evidence suggests that Eleanor found great satisfaction in her work with butterflies. She corresponded with other naturalists of the time, trading specimens and information, and in 1703 she visited London with a large collection of butterflies, which caused excitement among the naturalist community. As a woman, though, she could never become a member of the prestigious Royal Society, or even attend a meeting. She published no books or papers telling of her work, though fortunately she exchanged letters with several important (male) members of the scientific community at the time, giving us some records of her work.

Glanville Fritillary
In the end, her name lives on while many of her peers have sunk into relative obscurity. Her name was given to the Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia), making her one of only two British entomologists to have butterflies named for them. Eleanor was among the first to realize that this butterfly was different from other similar species by the small black spots on its hindwings. James Petiver documented it, first calling it the Lincolnshire Fritillary, but by 1748 the name had been changed to honor Eleanor and her work.

Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia), photo by Christian Fischer via Wikipedia
This little checkered orange and black butterfly was frequently found in the fens and wetlands of the Southeastern England of Eleanor's time. Over the years, though, most of the marshlands have been drained, changing the habitat drastically. The British population of the Glanville Fritillary is now constricted to the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands, with the occasional population appearing on the South Hampshire coast. (The butterfly has larger populations in other countries where its habitat still persists.)

The page below from British Butterflies by W. S. Coleman, published in 1862, shows the Glanville Fritillary (Fig 2) with other similar species. The author notes: "...[I]n such mean repute was the science of entomology held, mainly, I believe, on account of the small size of its objects, that an action at law was brought to set aside the will of an estimable woman, Lady Glanville, on the ground of insanity, the only symptom of which that they could bring forward in evidence was her fondness for collecting insects!"

We have no portrait of Eleanor Glanville to remember her by. Tickenham Court, her family home, still stands, but the marshlands that once surrounded it have changed completely. The very butterflies she once chased and documented so carefully have become rare in the areas where she once roamed. But Eleanor's story lives on, serving as inspiration for generations of women who have followed her into the study of natural sciences, especially those of us who go in pursuit of butterflies of our own.

Learn More

There are relatively few good sources readily available for information on Eleanor Glanville. Most researchers cite the article written by W. S. Bristowe, The Life of a Distinguished Woman Naturalist, Eleanor Glanville, published in a 1967 issue of the Entomologist's Gazette (vol. 18, p. 202 - 211), but no online version of this article appears to be available. Here are some other sources to try.


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