Wednesday, April 29, 2015

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.


In Print:

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