Five natural history trailblazers you may not have heard of

The Natural History Museum

Meet five oft-unsung women who paved the way for future generations of female scientists. 

Maria Sibylla Merian: a pioneering metamorphosis
Anna Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) travelled across the Atlantic, from Amsterdam to Suriname, to draw insects in their natural habitats, paving the way for future generations of female explorers.

Maria Sibylla Merian is praised for her work on metamorphosis, primarily of insects but also of amphibians and reptiles.

She began this work at a young age, keeping meticulous records of the changes she saw in the silkworms, moths and butterflies she kept.

Her stepfather, the artist Jacob Marrel, instructed her in realistic painting techniques using oils and watercolours, in copper engraving and in textile printing.

At 18 she married her stepfather's apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff, and together they had two daughters. She wrote and edited the series Neues Blumenbuch - the first volume was published in 1675, when she was 28. The books were a collection of painted engravings of garden flowers, intended to be used as embroidery patterns.

Merian was inspired by collections of insects she saw from outside of Europe. Although she was divorced at 52, she secured passage for herself and daughter Dorothea to South America. She funded their voyage by selling her collections and paintings.

Setting up base in Paramaribo, the present-day capital of Suriname, Merian and her daughter studied the local fauna and flora. They travelled into jungles and up rivers and were usually accompanied by local guides or African slaves.

Merian painted what she saw. In 1701 she self-published a folio of 60 illustrated plates with detailed descriptions, titled Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.

The artist depicted insects, but also their host plants. Of the illustrations she produced in Suriname, some of the plants she painted were not common in Europe.

To accompany an illustration of a pineapple, she wrote, 'This is a ripe Ananas (pineapple), which must be peeled to be eaten. This fruit tastes as though one had mixed grapes, apricots, red currents, apples and pears and were able to taste all of them at once.'

Suffering from poor health, Merian returned to Amsterdam after two years in Suriname. She continued to work up until she suffered a stroke in 1715. But despite her work being regarded highly, Merian died a registered pauper in 1717.

Her work served as an inspiration to scientists such as Carl Linnaeus - the 'father of taxonomy' - who referred to some of her illustrations in his work, Species Plantarum and Systema Naturae.

Merian endured criticism of her work and travel throughout her lifetime and even well into the nineteenth century. Some feared that her travel to Suriname and 'strange interests' might mislead other women. But today these opinions only reinforce what a groundbreaking naturalist she really was.

Dorothea Bate: trowel-blazing for women in science
Dorothea Minola Alice Bate (1878-1951) was the first female scientist employed by the Natural History Museum in London. She pioneered in the field of archaeozoology, the study of ancient faunal remains to answer questions on historical ecology.

Dorothea Bate had no official scientific qualifications when she travelled to the Natural History Museum at the age of 19 and demanded a job in the Bird department. At the time, scientific careers were overwhelmingly held by men, but Richard Bowdler Sharpe, Curator of Birds, gave her a job.

At that moment Bate became the first female scientist at the Museum. But her employment was unofficial, and she was only paid for piecework, meaning by the number of specimens she prepared.

Between 1901 and 1911 Bate explored the Mediterranean and collected numerous specimens of birds, mammals and insects.

Exploring the Balearic Islands of Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza, she uncovered a variety of extinct animals, from squirrel-sized dormice to a goat-like antelope that she named Myotragus in 1909.

Her discoveries showed evidence of island dwarfism and gigantism - when animals grow to unusually large or small sizes due to their isolated homes.

In 1934, Bate teamed up with famed archaeologist Prof Dorothy Garrod for a cave excavation on Mount Carmel in Israel. She used the two most common species of deer found there to chart historical changes in climate that occurred throughout the human occupation of the area. This helped her pave the way for the field of archaeozoology.

During the Second World War, air raids badly damaged the Natural History Museum. Much of the collections was transferred to the zoological Tring Museum, so Bate moved to Hertfordshire as well. She authored 80 published reports and reviews, as well as another 100 that remained unpublished during her lifetime.

In 1948 Bate was made Officer in Charge at Tring Museum. The achaeozoologist died on 13 January 1951 in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. Her ideas live on, both at the Museum and in the scientific community. She was commemorated in 2017 with a blue plaque in the Welsh town of Carmarthen and with a bust in Mallorca in 2018.

Elizabeth Twining: a floral education
Elizabeth Twining (1805-1889), of the famous Twinings tea family, was remarkable in her own right. Not only was she a talented botanic artist, she is also remembered for her efforts to create social reform and for championing the role that believed botany could play in it.

Elizabeth Twining was educated at home, mostly by her mother. This included lectures and theatre visits, as well as excursions to parks and gardens.

Initially Twining's illustrations were often miniatures and figures that she copied primarily from works at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. But on her first continental trip, when she was in her twenties, she painted in watercolour the landscapes and plants she saw.

Although she is considered an amateur illustrator, Twining was a skilled botanist. Her artwork mostly shows plants and flowers, and her first book - Illustrations of the Natural Order of Plants - is considered among the greatest lithographic flower books of the period.

In the introduction to the 1868 reduced folio edition of the book, she wrote: 'Of all the varied objects of creation there is, probably, no portion that affords so much gratification and delight to mankind as plants.'

The artist colourfully illustrated each order of plant and accompanied them with detailed descriptions.

For Vitaceae, Twining drew the common grapevine and the Virginia creeper with footnotes on their features. In descriptive text she noted key characteristics of the tribe, such as the 'acid leaves and sweet fruit', as well detailing its history, growth cycles and locales.

In addition to her art, she is remembered for her philanthropy, particularly for promoting botany as important in the education of women regardless of social class.

She also encouraged growing plants for flower shows, or in window boxes at institutions such as workhouses, to benefit both the inmates and staff.

Twining died in December 1889 at the family home, Dial House, in Twickenham.

Evelyn Cheesman: alone in the jungle
Lucy Evelyn Cheesman (1881- 1969) was an English entomologist known for her extensive solo expeditions across the South Pacific Islands. On her expeditions she collected around 70,000 insects, plants and other animals for the Natural History Museum in London.

Evelyn Cheesman was interested in the natural world from a young age. She loved collecting glowworms to work out why they glowed.

At first she was rejected by veterinary schools because she was a woman, but she was eventually made Assistant Curator of Insects at ZSL London Zoo in 1917. In 1920 she became the zoo's first female Insect House Curator.

Cheesman departed England for the Galapagos and Marquesas islands in 1924. On arrival in Tahiti she split from her expedition group to traverse the jungle wilderness alone. She officially left the zoo in 1926 and continued to explore the islands of the South Pacific.

In 1926, when she was 45, Cheesman embarked on her first solo expedition to the Society Islands, commissioned by the Natural History Museum to collect specimens.

She collected around 70,000 specimens throughout her travels. Most of these were insects, but there were also plants and other animals.

She was frugal with supplies and is recorded as being able to survive for a year on what most expeditions parties would use in a week. She also battled tropical disease including dengue and malaria, and stumbled upon the numerous deadly snakes and spiders that the islands are home to.

She once got so caught up in the low-hanging webs of the Nephila spider on Gorgona Island, Colombia, that she had to spend several hours freeing herself with a nail file. Not to be deterred, she simply never entered the jungle without a machete at her side.

Cheesman collaborated with the local communities and often went solo where others would refuse. On her travels in the New Hebrides, she stayed with cannibals that had rarely been approached by western explorers before.

On one solo trip, Cheesman left six months' worth of collections in the care of an official. But he left her work outside his headquarters, rendering them useless after being soaked by frequent rains.

At the age of 73 - and after a hip replacement - Cheesman made her final expedition to Aneityum Island of the Vanuatu chain in 1953.

She was awarded an OBE in 1955 for her services to entomology, and over the course of her life became an accomplished author with 16 books to her name.

Cheesman worked at the Natural History Museum from 1955 until 1969, when she passed away at the age of 88.

Grace Edwards: a Museum mystery
Grace Edwards was a skilled scientific artist and model maker. Little is known of her life outside of her commission and contributions to the collections at the Natural History Museum in London.

Like many of the women working at the Museum during the early 1900s, Edwards was only unofficially employed. From 1903 until the 1920s she was contracted to prepare illustrations and models of insects, but she is also known for her watercolour paintings of oriental bloodsucking flies.

Many of these paintings are featured Ernest Austen's 1909 book, Illustrations of African Blood-Sucking Flies Other Than Mosquitoes And Tsetse-Flies. Edwards's coloured images accompany detailed descriptions of the insects, written by the author.

Edwards paid close attention to detail of her tiny, bloodsucking subjects despite often drawn on cards no larger than seven by nine centimetres.

In 1918, the British Museum (Natural History) - the establishment that would become the Natural History Museum - commissioned and produced a series of posters on the dangers of some insects, including flies and lice.

Forty thousand of these posters were printed. They warned the public of the dangers of these animals, detailing the diseases they carried and offering advice on preventative measures and trap building.

Edwards's detailed illustrations took centre stage, magnifying 'one of man's greatest enemies'. This also allowed the British public to see these small insects close up.

Despite her remarkable talent and hard work, Grace Edwards has seemingly slipped into obscurity. Little is known of her life beyond her valuable work at the Museum.

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