Famous Female Entomologists Part 4: Maria Sybilla Merian, the Mother of Entomology
This is Part Four of a five-part series on Famous Female Entomologists, in honor of the 32nd Annual Insect Fear Film Festival (February 28, 2015), the theme of which is Female Entomologists. (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part 5)
By Michelle Duennes
As was the case for many women artists of the 17th century, Maria Sibylla Merian was born into and raised among a family of artists. She was born in 1647 in Frankfurt, Germany to Johanna Sibylla Heim and the engraver and publisher Mathias Merian the Elder. When she was three years old, her father passed and her mother Johanna was soon re-married to the still-life painter Jacob Marrel. Authors have speculated that the artistic environment in which she was raised may have encouraged her to perfect her illustrative technique, her skill, and her attention for detail.
Despite this nurturing environment, Maria was not able to travel like the male students that apprenticed under her stepfather, one them being Johann Andreas Graff, who later became her husband. Instead, she worked with what she had. She began by drawing the silkworms that fed on the mulberry in her yard. Through keen observation, she learned that these silkworms and other caterpillars changed into moths and butterflies, and she began collecting as many as she could to see what kind of moths or butterflies they would become.
It didn’t take long for Maria’s dedication to depicting and describing insect metamorphosis to blossom into a career. At the age of 28, she published her first book of illustrations and then produced three more books in the following four years.
One reason her works were so revolutionary is that she drew her subjects while they were alive in their natural environments. While Francis Bacon had drawn attention to the importance of observation and experimentation in the pursuit of knowledge a few decades earlier, the practice of Maria’s time was for naturalists to describe specimens that were dead, displayed, and collected. Because of this, not much was known about how insect metamorphosis occurred until Maria’s works. She was also one of the first naturalists to emphasize the ecology of the organism by drawing them on their host plants, and even drawing the kind of damage they left behind.
Two other things that made Maria Sibylla Merian so exceptional are the circumstances and journey that led to her most ground-breaking work, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam). In 1699 the city of Amsterdam, where she had been living for eight years, offered Maria a grant to travel to Surinam with her youngest daughter. Governmental sponsorship of a woman was unheard of at that time, and naturalists rarely went on expeditions around the world for study. She was also 52 years old and had been supporting herself financially for several years (she divorced her husband years earlier). She spent two years in Surinam documenting the insect and plant life there, and later Carl Linnaeus even used some of her drawings to classify new species.
However, because of her lack of formal education and her gender, her successors were hesitant to cite her and her work fell into obscurity for decades. Her work was re-discovered in the 20th century and brought her enough posthumous fame that her likeness was placed on the 500 Deutsche Mark.
As an entomologist and art-history buff, I am embarrassed that the first time I learned of Maria Sybilla Merian was during my insect physiology class in graduate school. I knew about her magnificent illustrations, but not about the revolutionary woman behind the works until we discussed her in class. Since then I’ve developed a fascination with her. In my spare time I’ve taken up visiting the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at the University of Illinois to translate their original copy of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium from Latin into English. I have such a strong desire to build a connection with this important woman in the history of entomology because I am utterly inspired by her rejection of social and scientific norms in her unwavering and passionate pursuit of knowledge about the natural world.
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Michelle Duennes is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois. She is conducting her dissertation research on the evolution and conservation of bumble bees in the mountains of Mexico and Central America and is the event coordinator for National Pollinator Week in Champaign-Urbana. She also has a passion for teaching people about evolution, insects, and the importance of pollinators for agriculture. In her free time she plays roller derby for the Twin City Derby Girls under the pseudonym Polly Nator. Follow her on Twitter at @Polly_Nator.