Scientist, Illustrator, Forgotten Metamorphosist

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In some of Merian’s drawings, butterflies and caterpillars didn’t match. CREDIT MARIA SIBYLLA MERIAN, METAMORPHOSIS INSECTORUM SURINAMENSIUM, AMSTERDAM 1705, THE HAGUE, NATIONAL LIBRARY OF THE NETHERLANDS

Any story with Metamorphosis in it is bound to get our attention, but a long-forgotten scientist getting her due is the intrigue that makes this story by JoAnna Klein–A Pioneering Woman of Science Re‑Emerges After 300 Years–coinciding with the republication of this book below, worthy of the read:metamorph

Maria Sibylla Merian, like many European women of the 17th century, stayed busy managing a household and rearing children. But on top of that, Merian, 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 who has been studying the scientific history of Merian’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, Merian 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.

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.”

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,” said Dr. Etheridge. “Victorians started putting women in a box, and they’re still trying to crawl out of it.”

Today, the pioneering woman of the sciences has re-emerged. In recent years, feminists, historians and artists have all praised Merian’s tenacity, talent and inspirational artistic compositions. And now biologists like Dr. Etheridge are digging into the scientific texts that accompanied her art. Three hundred years after her death, Merian will be celebrated at an international symposium in Amsterdam this June.

And last month, “Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium” was republished. It contains 60 plates and original descriptions, along with stories about Merian’s life and updated scientific descriptions. These are a few of them…

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