Sunday, October 29, 2006

Beatrix Potter, Naturalist

Chet Raymo (Science Musings) has an interesting post about Beatrix Potter's work as a naturalist.

Potter was the first person in Britain, and one of the first in the world, to recognize that lichens were composed of two organisms, a fungus and an alga. Her microscopic study of lichens led her to the conclusion that the two organisms lived in a mutually advantageous relationship: symbiosis. The alga took care of photosynthesis for the pair, converting sunlight to useful nourishment, she believed; the fungus gave the alga a safe haven, stored water, and drew minerals necessary for photosynthesis from the anchoring rock or tree trunk.
Her work was generally ignored by the scientific establishment.
At last, through the helpful influence of her uncle, a chemist, she managed to have a scientific paper presented at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London: "On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae," by Helen B. Potter. Of course, she was not allowed to read it herself; only men were allowed to attend the meetings.
She eventually turned away from science, and focused on illustrated books for children. While it would be a less colorful world without Peter Rabbit, it's hard to know what was lost by excluding women like Potter from the scientific community.


Anonymous said...

I just did an Art unit on Beatrix Potter for a S.T.E.M. + Art club (or S.T.E.A.M.) in an elementary school. I knew that she was a naturalist, but did not know that she basically made the discovery about lichens that is pretty much taught in every school in the world, when students learn about symbiosis. My students were floored by the fact that the scientific community ignored her. I am floored by the fact that this example of symbiosis is so widely used and that her name, which is already a house-hold name, is not attached to it! Sad...the discrimination against women that was so prolific in the Victorian Era (and beyond) has swallowed up the stunning brilliance of this multifaceted genius.