Vincent Jansen is Professor of Mathematical Biology at Royal Holloway, University of London. In his research he uses mathematics and models to understand how things work in biology, evolution and epidemiology.
This blog is about women in biology, in particular about the illustrator/scientist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717) and the former Head of Botany at Royal Holloway College, Prof. Margaret Benson (1859 - 1936). This is an edited version of a contribution to , the student led magazine of the Department of Biological Sciences, Royal Holloway University of London.
Ask someone about famous scientists, and chances are that most will name a man. It is not that women have not been important or were not active in science – Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin or Dorothy Hodgkin to name just a few. But science in its early days was difficult for women to break into and contributions were often not fully recognised.
In Biology women had always been involved in the collection and illustration of specimen; particularly in botany, illustrations were often made by women. At the root of some biological fields women have therefore long played an important role, although it sometimes has taken a while for this to be recognised.
Take , for instance. She was born in 1647 into a Swiss publishing and engraving family, and Maria learned her artistic skills from her stepfather, a painter. At the age of 13 she was given some silkworms and raised them. Through this she observed the lifecycle of insects from egg to caterpillar and finally the emergence of the adult butterfly from the pupa. Later in life she reared many insects. She documented and depicted the metamorphosis of 186 European butterflies in engravings that she made for a book which made her work well known.
In her late thirties she joined a religious community with her two daughters. The community occupied a manor house owned by the family of the governor of the Dutch colony of Surinam. In the house she saw specimens of South American butterflies and she became curious about these exotic insects.
In 1699, at the age of 52, she set sail with her youngest daughter on a journey to Surinam, to study and record insects, plants and other wildlife, on what could be seen as one of the first scientific expeditions. The book that she had published with the observations she made on the life histories of tropical insects, many completely unknown at that time, caused a sensation.
Merian’s artwork captured the beauty of the insects she studied and clearly shows her love for the subject. She was a keen observer and, differently from many illustrators at that time, she studied and showed the insects on the plants on which they lived. This gave an insight into the insect’s ecology and she was one of the first to do so. Her work made a lasting difference; at the time of the publication of her books, most people believed that beetles emerged from mud, and moths from entangled wool. Merian’s life-cycle illustrations stemmed from careful observation and meticulous documentation of the life histories of insects, as well as their habitats and ecosystems. Although during the 19th century she was largely dismissed as a mere illustrator, more recently she has been recognised as one of the foundresses of Entomology and Ecology.
Spin forward nearly two centuries to 1859. The year that Darwin published “On the origin of species”: science had moved on since Merian showed butterflies did not come from mud. It was the year in which was born. Like Merian, Benson was born into an artistic family. Her maternal grandfather was a landscape painter and her mother was a painter too. Benson probably inherited her drawing skills through the female line. Through her father, who was an architect and engineer, she learned about plants on their expeditions to the countryside. When out and about she filled her sketchbooks with drawings of plants.
Benson got her doctorate at UCL, where she specialised in paleobotany. In 1893, only six years after the first students had arrived at Royal Holloway College, she became the Head of the Royal Holloway Botany Department: the first female botanist in the UK to head a department. She published many papers, illustrated by careful drawings thought to be made by herself. She was a well-known and respected scientist of her days.
At Royal Holloway Benson established a laboratory that allowed her to teach botany and do her research. She travelled extensively in the search for specimens, knowledge and material to equip her laboratory with. In those days it was not easy for women to travel unchaperoned. Benson solved this problem by travelling with her friend and fellow botanist Ethel Sargant. They travelled far and wide, they toured Europe, and visited the Middle East, Australia, Java and India.
Benson linked her teaching with research as she practised research-led teaching; something that inspires our teaching to this day. To do this, she established a botanical garden, herbarium and museum at Royal Holloway. The botanical garden is there no longer, but some of her specimens have survived in the museum, and the mounts of many herbarium specimens have her handwriting and name still on them.
Benson also made history in another way. She was one of the first female fellows of the Linnean Society had been a struggle: in 1900 a request had been filed by the botanist Marian Farquharson for women to be admitted as fellows. The society rebuffed the request. Farquharson persevered and in 1904 a first group of 15 women became fellows, Benson among them (interestingly, Farquharson’s application was blackballed and she only became a fellow in 1908). , the world’s oldest active biological society. Becoming a fellow of the
Why was gaining fellowships so important for women? Meetings of learned societies were one of the main places where scientific debate took place: it was at a meeting of the Linnean Society that Darwin first presented his theory of evolution by natural selection. Being excluded from such meetings meant that women were excluded from the debate and, through this, excluded from actively participating in science.
Access to learned societies was an important advance for women, but it was equally important for science. Science advances by creativity and innovation, and by finding and embracing new perspectives. Barring access to any group does not make sense: it stops progress. Bringing down access barriers to women – and widening participation in general – is not only just, it helps us pursue the best possible research and do the best possible science.
Vincent Jansen, July 2020
The life and contributions of Maria Sibylla Merian are covered in many books and papers. Her books are still being printed. An interesting blog on how she still inspires scientists today is:
The following book chapter has a long section on Margaret Benson
Ayres P. (2020) Miss Sargant and a Botanical Web. In: Women and the Natural Sciences in Edwardian Britain. Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
The admission of the first women fellows to the Linnean Society is the subject website and exhibition at the Linnean Society:
Read the previous blog -------------------