April 2 – Happy Birthday, Maria Sibylla Merian

Posted on April 2, 2014

She lived in Germany and the Netherlands, and she traveled for two years in Suriname, in South America. She was an artist and a scientist. – And all of that is so much more remarkable because she lived in the 17th and 18th Centuries!

Born on this date in 1647 in Frankfurt, in what is now Germany but was then the Holy Roman Empire, Maria Sibylla Merian was fascinated by insects as a child. She would often collect caterpillars to be able to watch their metamorphosis into butterflies and moths.

She also drew and painted as a child, encouraged by her artist stepfather. Naturally, she drew and painted insects.

As a married woman living in Germany, Merian illustrated plants and animals for books and catalogs, and she also gave drawing lessons to rich young ladies. That was a pretty nice gig for her, because she had access to fine gardens – and therefore plenty of insects!

In the late 1600s, Merian moved to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, and divorced her husband. She was able to study some fine insect collections, but she wondered what the gorgeous butterflies and moths looked like as caterpillars and chrysalises. She did a bold and uncommon thing: she traveled with her youngest daughter to South America to study the plants and animals in the Dutch colony of Suriname.

Merian spent two years in Suriname. She criticized the Dutch planters' treatment of the native peoples and of African slaves – but she was in naturalist heaven! She not only sketched local animals and plants, she also recorded their Native American names and described the plants' uses by locals. Unfortunately, Merian's expedition ended when she fell ill with malaria.

When she returned to the Netherlands, Merian was able to sell specimens of insects she had collected, and to publish illustrations of the plant and animal life of Suriname. In 1705 she published a volume about just the insects of Suriname.

In her own time, Merian was largely ignored by scientists. Is that because she was a woman, or because she wrote about plants and animals using common German language, rather than Latin?

It may have been partly because of Merian's unusual interest in insects. Insects in general did not have a great reputation—they were despised by most and were often called names like “beasts of the devil.” Most male scientists were drawn to study larger, grander creatures, and those who studied and collected insects tended to study the dead, preserved bodies of the creatures.

Instead of just studying dead insects, Merian observed live ones out in nature. She even raised insects and studied them throughout their life cycle. She learned details of insect metamorphosis that were largely unknown before. She gathered evidence that insects were NOT “born of mud,” as most people believed. She described insect behavior and the impact of one species on others. Also, because of her trip to Suriname, Merian was the first European to describe and illustrate important insects such as leaf-cutter ants, army ants, and birdeater tarantulas.

The “Father of Entomology,” William Kirby, wasn't born until more than four decades after Merian's death. What I want to know is, why isn't Merian considered the “Mother of Entomology”?

Merian's illustrations are still valued by collectors today, and her classifications, descriptions, and illustrations are still relevant. She has been honored with her picture on postage stamps and money, her name on a research vessel and on several schools, and even a Google doodle!

By the way, one important thing that Merian did was to use Native American names to refer to plants, with the result that these names were used in Europe. What a great idea – instead of splattering your own name on everything you see, how about listening to others who have already “discovered” these things, and using their names? Wonderful!

Also on this date:

Peanut Butter and Jelly Day 

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