Monday, November 17, 2008

Women's Work: Scientific Illustration

The Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology has a fantastic online exhibit on Women's Work: Portraits of 12 Scientific Illustrators from the 17th to the 21st Century.

There are a number of pre-20th century women made important contributions to science with their illustrations of the natural world. Their work was often undervalued, at least compared to "real" science. Take, for example, the comments of John Lindley, who was the first Professor of Botany at the University of London and Assistant Secretary to the Royal Horticultural Society:

Because of his passion for his subject and his tremendous influence, he can be credited with shaping the science of botany, but he also took the lead in a movement to divide botanical studies into gender specific categories, identifying certain practices as those acceptable for women such as collecting, painting, and tutoring of children, and reserving true research as masculine science. On April 30, 1829, in his inaugural speech as Professor of Botany, he stated “It has been very much the fashion of late years, in this country, to undervalue the importance of this science, and to consider it an amusement for ladies rather than an occupation for the serious thoughts of men,” establishing a divisive agenda that was felt long afterwards.
It's little wonder that women's contributions to science have been so often forgotten. Exhibits like this help correct that. Here are some of the women that are profiled (be sure to click the links to see the illustrations):

Sarah Drake (1803-1857), who trained as a botanical illustrator under the above-mentioned John Lindley.
Drake was extremely prolific, creating well over 1000 illustrations for the Botanical Register alone. Her career ended when the Botanical Register ceased publication in 1847.
Anna Lister (1671-?), who, along with her sister Susanna, illustrated the publications of her father, Dr. Martin Lister.
As the sisters grew, they would have had the benefit of observing the talented William Lodge engraving their father’s early publications. Some illustrations that he had completed for previous Lister publications were used again in Historiae Conchyliorum and it is likely that he engraved some of the plates from the Listers’ drawings, but after Lodge’s death in 1689, the pair replaced him as their father’s illustrators and engravers for his grand work, as well as for the articles he and others published in the Philosophical Transactions.
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)
Merian came from the tradition of flower painting, but she was foremost a scientist: she was one of the first to study metamorphosis and one of the first to publish images of tropical plants, the first to understand and describe the relationships between animals along with their host plants. The work produced from her Surinam voyage was remarkably influential.
Elizabeth Gould (1804-1841), who worked with her husband, John Gould, on illustrating the fauna from around the world.
Elizabeth’s greatest adventure began on May 16, 1838. Leaving all but her oldest child with her mother, she and John set sail for Australia. Over the next two years, Elizabeth made hundreds of drawings from specimens for the publications Birds of Australia and A Monograph of the Macropodidæ, or Family of Kangaroos, as well as fifty illustrations for the Ornithology volume of Charles Darwin’s Zoology of the Voyage of H. M. S. Beagle. She also accompanied John into the Australian bush, giving her a thrilling, first-hand glimpse of her subjects.
Anna Maria Hussey (1805-?) was the illustrator and author of Illustrations of British Mycology.
Hussey was a strong willed woman who approached her personal researches with an enthusiasm that she did not quite feel for her role as a clergyman’s wife. She resisted when she was called upon by “every old woman in the parish” and she chafed at her husband’s reminders of her duties. She was a prolific writer, the author of published fiction, as well as the extensive text that accompanied the plates in Illustrations of British Mycology. During her most creative period, she maintained an active and candid correspondence with her mycological mentor, Reverend M. J. Berkley, which provides many details of her daily life and work.
Sarah "Sadie" Price (1849-1903) began as a watercolor teacher, who ended up collecting plants and studying the sciences.
She wrote papers and gave lectures on plants, birds, insects, fishes, shells, clouds and astronomy. Between 1893 and 1907, she penned over forty scientific papers which were published in a variety of popular and scientific journals. She organized and taught classes out of her home. Her nature studies classes were so popular that that they persisted for nearly thirty years after her death.
The exhibit also profiles contemporary scientific illustrators Sally Bensusen, Megan Bluhm, Marlene Hill Donnelly, Bee Gunn, Jessa Huebing-Reitinger, and Yevonn Wilson-Ramsey.

For more botanical illustrations by women, see the web site for the Getty Center exhibit "Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science"

(via BibliOdyssey)

Image: Illustration by Maria Sibylla Merian of Surinam peppers. "She was fascinated by the interaction of plants and people, taking an approach that today would be called ethnobotany"

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