Sunday, May 17, 2015

Jeanne Villepreux-Power, Natural Historian and Marine Biologist

via Women Rock Science
Written by Jill M. Staake

Born: September 25, 1794, France
Died: January 25, 1871, France

S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • Inventor of the modern aquarium
  • Published two works on the wildlife of Sicily

Her Story

In the early 1800s, Jeanne Villepreux-Power had a problem. She was fascinated by the underwater fauna surrounding the island of Sicily, but studying these creatures in their natural environment was very difficult. Diving bells were available, but prohibitively expensive for the average citizen of course. Diving suits had been invented a hundred years earlier, but were mostly used by men for salvage and other commercial operations. Besides, Jeanne had a better idea, one that was almost astonishingly simple. She brought the undersea environment to her, inventing the modern aquarium.

Dress Sense
Jeanne was born in a small town in France, Juillac, two years after France abolished the monarchy and declared itself a republic. She grew up during a time of war with Britain and general unrest, but like any average citizens, Jeanne and her family had to go on with their daily lives. Her father was a shoemaker, and Jeanne was trained as a dressmaker. Not content with the opportunities available there, she left at age 18 to travel to Paris (legend says she walked the whole way). 

Just like today, the Paris of 1812 was a mecca for fashion. Jeanne found work as the assistant to a society dressmaker, but soon began to shine on her own. In 1816 Jeanne created the bridal outfit for Princess Caroline of The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which brought her both fame and the attention of British merchant James Power. They married in 1818 and made their home in Sicily.

Natural Curiosity
As the wife of a wealthy man, Jeanne no longer worked as a dressmaker, leaving her with time to explore her new home. She was interested in the flora and fauna of Sicily, roaming far and wide to document and draw what she saw. These notes would eventually become the basis for her book, Guida per la Sicilia (Guide to Sicily), published in 1842. But though what she found on land was interesting, it was the creatures hiding under the sea that fascinated her.

Image by CĂ©cile Didier via Wikipedia
Like many biologists, Jeanne had a favorite among those she studied - Argonauta argo, known as the Greater Argonaut or Paper Nautilus. Others had already noted that the females of this pelagic octopus lived in a paper-thin shell, but Jeanne wanted to know more about that shell. The popular belief was that, since no other octopus was known to create its own shell, this one didn't either - it was assumed that Argonauta argo must use shells created by other creatures (like a hermit crab does). Jeanne wasn't so sure, but studying the creature in its natural environment was difficult. It was time to think outside the box - or rather, inside a new kind of box.

Age of Aquaria
The idea of an aquarium seems so simple to us today, and in fact, the Romans and Chinese had developed marble and porcelain equivalents hundreds of years before. But Jeanne's aquaria were made of glass, designed especially for the study of marine organisms. She created three different types of aquaria, each for specific types of study. The first would seem most familiar to us - a simple box made of glass in a metal frame, designed to be kept on dry land and filled with living specimens. The other two were meant to be used in the field; one was a glass box with a metal cage around it, which could be lowered into shallow water. The other was to be used at deeper depths, anchored to the bottom and brought back to the surface as needed.

Using these new devices, Jeanne was able to conclude (correctly) that the female Greater Argonaut creates her own paper-thin eggcase that coils around itself. She published her findings in 1839 in a book called Observations et expériences physiques sur plusieurs animaux marins et terrestres (Physical observations and experiments on several marine and terrestrial animals), Her work brought her great respect and fame at the time, with contemporary colleague Richard Own christening her the "Mother of Aquariophily."

Lost at Sea
In 1843, Jeanne and her husband left Sicily to live in London and Paris. While they both made the voyage safely, the ocean had one last challenge to throw at Jeanne. The ship carrying the majority of her research was wrecked, and her collections, notes, and  records sank to the murky deep, lost forever. Perhaps disheartened by the literal drowning of 20 years of work, Jeanne gave up her marine studies, which would have been difficult while living in London and Paris anyway. She continued to write and publish, but her greatest innovations were behind her.
Home aquarium circa 1860, via Wikimedia Commons
Jeanne's fame faded quickly after her death, with little heard about her during the following century. Recently, though, her name and accomplishments have begun to be celebrated again. In 1995, the Historical Society of Messina re-published her Guida per la Sicilia for new audiences to experience. In 1997, a large crater on Venus was named "Villepreux-Power" in her honor. Her greatest scientific legacy, though, is found in millions of labs, schools, and homes around the world, in the form of glass aquaria filled with marine fauna and flora. Jeanne Villepreux-Power created a new way for humankind to explore, understand, and enjoy the world in which we live - an invaluable gift for generations to come.

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