Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Artist, Lepidopterist, Woman: Celebrating the Life and Work Maria Sibylla Merian

Hey ya'll

When celebrating the contributions of some of the great women in history, it is often easy to overlook (among all the humanitarians among great women) the women who were involved in the documentation of natural history such as Maria Sibylla Merian. Maria, a naturalist and scientific illustrator, was not only one of the first woman to be actively involved in the field of natural history (then considered a primarily/if not exclusively male domain) but also the first to carefully observe and document the life cycle of insects thus making her one of the most significant contributors to the field of entomology. It is therefore of much appreciation that Google chose to feature, and celebrate her life yesterday by changing their header in commemoration of her 366th birthday. 

Early Life

Maria Sibylla Merian circa 1700
For much of her early life, Maria Sibylla Merian exhibited a fascination for insects! Having been encouraged to take up drawing and painting by her stepfather, Merian eventually began to utilize her talent to document and illustrate the various creepy crawlies that she encountered. Of particular interest to her, not surprisingly, was the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies and moths. 

I spent my time investigating insects. At the beginning, I started with silk worms in my home town of Frankfurt. I realized that other caterpillars produced beautiful butterflies or moths, and that silkworms did the same. This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to see how they changed. 

In Holland, with much astonishment what beautiful animals came from the East and West Indies. I was blessed with having been able to look at both the expensive collection of Doctor Nicolaas Witsen, mayor of Amsterdam and director of the East Indies Society, and that of Mr. Jonas Witsen, secretary of Amsterdam. Moreover I also saw the collections of Mr Fredericus Ruysch, doctor of medicine and professor of anatomy and botany, Mr. Livinnus Vincent, and many other people. In these collections I had found innumerable other insects, but finally if here their origin and reproduction is unknown, it begs the question as to how they transform, starting from caterpillars and chrysalises and so on. 

(Foreword from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium)

Contributions to Science 

a plate from Metamorphosis insectorum
As evinced from her foreword, it would therefore seem that though an interest and study in natural history was quite dispersed at the time, not many people displayed an explicit interest in the origin and life cycles of many of their insect specimens. This in turn might be retrospectively attributed to the common belief in those times that insects were "Beasts of the Devil" and thus, spontaneously generated from the ground. As an amateur lepidopterist, Merian's work with butterflies and moths, and a grand total of 186 insect species might therefore be said to be pioneering in that it was one of, if not THE first work to document insect lifestyle and evolution with such attention to detail.

Plate from Metamorphosis Insectorum
Conversely though it can be argued that there were some local scholars of the time who had already been aware of the life cycles of butterflies or moths, it could also similarly be opined that not many of them truly understood this process. It was Merian's work, for example, that first illustrated the fact that caterpillars were often dependent on specific host plants and that eggs were often laid close to, or on these plants for ease of the developing larvae.  In addition to her work with insects, Merian successfully discovered and described a whole range of animals and plants in the interior of Surinam. Her classification for butterflies and moths and her use of Native American names to refer to the various species of plants she encountered is still relevant in the field of science today. In fact, the infamous "bird eating" spiders of South American probably owe their reputation and name to a drawing made by Merian depicting such a spider devouring a small bird.

A Curious Woman in a Man's World
a plate taken from Metamorphosis insectorum

Although much of Merian's work, such as Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, and The Caterpillar's Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food were very popular in high society as a result of its publication in the vernacular, much of Merian's work was continuously largely ignored by many within the scientific community at a time when the official language of science was considered to be latin. Similarly, many male scientists, who had never set foot in Suriname themselves, claimed her to be a fraud. Naturalists like the Reverand Lansdown Guilding dismissed her description of army ants and bird eating spiders stating that "Madame Merian has told a willfull falsehood." Such criticisms and accusations would eventually take a toll on her reputation as a careful observer of nature.

Furthermore, while scientific surveys of natural wildlife were not exactly uncommon at the time, they were usually carried out by men who were already being sent to colonies to live, or work, there. Consequently, Merian's decision to self fund her own expedition in pursuit of her interest raised many eyebrows especially over the fact that she was a woman. Despite the doubt of others, Merian's perseverence and tenacity paid off and in 1699, the city of Amsterdam sponsored her petition to travel to Suriname in South America. During stay, Merian traveled between the various colonies, documenting any plant or insect life she came upon there. "In the era of investigation dominate by the collection and classification of organisms, Merian's organic apporach to the study of natural history was unusual and was not always understood by her fellow scholars," (Etheridge, 2010: 19). Incidentally, her observations on the metamorphosis of frogs was the first to ever be recorded with such accuracy. She also took note of the natives and black slaves that were then employed by Dutch planters and is often quoted to be quite critical of the treatment of the Dutch masters over these people.

Late Life

Plate from Metamorphosis Insectorum
Barely 2 years into her expedition, however, Maria contracted a case of malaria and was forced to return prematurely to the Netherlands. There she spent her life selling the specimens she had collected and publishing engravings of the plant and animal life she had encountered in Surinam. In 1705, she published the world famous Metamorphosis Insectorum Surninamensium. In 1715 at age 67, Merian suffered from a stroke which greatly affected her ability to work. Not much is known about her later life from this point on except that she is listed in a registry as being a pauper. Merian died, two years later in Amsterdam. Her work was only rediscovered, recognized and reprinted in the last quarter of the 20th century. 

Merian and her work is continued to be recognized in this day and age, and her likeness has graced both the likes of stamps and currency but it is arguable that not many people have actually come to recognize and appreciate her contributions to the field of science with specificity to the field of entomology. As a feminist, and an amateur lepidopterist myself, I suppose you could say that I have come to deeply admire Merian and have a strong sense of appreciation for her work (I even have a few of her prints that I intend to frame and display alongside my butterfly and moth collection someday). Perhaps, when I begin conducting my own field studies in the Northern part of Malaysia, I can undertake a similar personal project of my own! It is therefore with much praise and approval that I publish this post in conjunction with Google's tribute and celebration of her Meria Sibylla Merian's: artist, amateur lepidopterist, woman.

1 comment:

Brittanie said...

I have only one thing to say.

God bless you Maria Sibylla Merian

Oh and this was beautifully written. ♥ Thank you! I now have yet another wonderful person to add onto my "Heroes" list ^^

Good luck & God bless on your personal studies too Cyren. I want to hear all about them. ^_^