Maria Sibylla Merian was a fine painter and superb naturalist, one of the first woman scientists we know of. Her observations of insects and their relationships with plants revolutionized botany and zoology. Maria Sibylla revealed, for the first time in print, the mystery of metamorphosis. Before her work, the prevailing opinion was that flies and worms came to life by spontaneous generation. Maria was one of the very first scientists who observed living animals and plants rather than dead specimens preserved in alcohol.
Maria Sibylla was a painter of great power at a time when in Germany, women were not permitted to earn a living as painters. But they could publish “models” for embroidery, which she did in her first book, Flowerbook, in her twenties.
Maria kept a journal of nature observations for 53 years, from age 16 to age 69. Her journal was rediscovered and published in German in 1976.
At 13, she wrote,
“I collected all the caterpillars I could find in order to study their metamorphosis. I therefore withdrew from society and devoted myself to these investigations.”
Understanding animals and their plant connections became the focus of her life, and from 1660 on she collected insects, recording and painting everything she could observe about their life cycles and behavior.
In 1699, at the age of 52 years, Maria and her daughter Dorothea set sail for the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America. In those days such a voyage took three months. It was shocking for women, especially an old woman of 52, to undertake such a voyage.
For two years the two women explored Surinam, painting insects and plants as they traveled. When Maria became ill with malaria she returned to Amsterdam, but her daughter stayed five years, continuing her mother’s insect studies.
In 1705, Maria Sibylla published Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam (Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium), lavishly illustrated with colored plates. The book earned wide acclaim and some financial success. However, her work was derided as fantasy by some naturalists for describing bird-eating spiders, (later confirmed) and found offensive by colonial officials who did not like her comments on the treatment of the indigenous Indians and African slaves. This book brought her work to the attention of the great scientist Carl Linneaus, and established her reputation.
Maria Sibyyla died from stroke in 1717. Just weeks before her death, Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, purchased all of her original works. When Peter died, they were displayed in a museum, the first in Russia, where they remain.
Text & Flower image via Morning Earth.