Maria Merian

One scientist, who would have taken issue with last week’s “ignorance is bliss” statement is Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717). This powerhouse of a woman, of whom I knew nothing until the recent fortuitous find of her 2018 biography The Girl Who Drew Butterflies  by Joyce Sidman, not only sought knowledge at every turn, it was insect knowledge she loved above all else, which led her to accomplish feats unusual for any human, let alone for a woman born in the 17th century.

Endpaper detail from “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies” by Joyce Sidman

Maria saw the light of the world in Frankfurt, Germany, on April 2, 1647. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, an engraver and head of a publishing company died when she was only three. Her mother, Johanna Sibylla, remarried. From her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still life painter, Maria learned his craft, and she proved talented from an early age. Including insects on still lifes was popular, and Maria, utterly intrigued, began to observe them closely. Most of their life cycles were unknown (the notion of spontaneous generation was still widespread), and while watching and drawing their transformation from egg to caterpillar to moth or butterfly, she became aware of the process of metamorphosis, which was not common knowledge then.

Uncolored engraving of a garden tiger moth on a hyacinth flower from Maria Merian’s 1679 caterpillar book

Maria married at 18, as was expected of her. Her husband, Johann Andreas Graff, also a painter, was ten years her senior. The couple moved to Nuremberg, where they ran a printing and engraving shop. They had two daughters, Johanna and Dorothea. Unusual for the time, Maria published two books with engravings during her sojourn in Nuremberg, one about flowers, another about caterpillars and their remarkable transformation. Eventually, a second caterpillar volume was to follow.

Her marriage was unhappy, and when her stepfather died in 1681, Maria returned to Frankfurt, ostensibly to support her mother, but likely because she wanted to get away from her husband. Four years later, Maria, her two daughters, and her mother joined a religious community in Holland, where Johann sought her out, demanding her return. Maria refused, and they divorced shortly thereafter.

Maria Merian’s depiction of a frog’s life cycle, including eggs, tadpoles, and adults

Following her mother’s death, Maria and her daughters moved to Amsterdam, Holland’s capital and a thriving port city, where she had access to private curiosity cabinets, precursors to museums, with their plant and animal collections from across the world. Together with her daughters, both accomplished artists in their own right, Maria ran a business. They painted and engraved, and Maria taught fellow women artists, while continuing her scientific observations. No animal or plant was beyond her notice. She became particularly intrigued by specimens sent back from the Dutch colony of Surinam, also known as Dutch Guyana.

Maria determined to travel to Surinam to study its flora and fauna. Against all odds, she and her younger daughter financed their own journey, and, from 1699 to 1701, spent nearly two years in this exotic country at the northern coast of South America. Maria would have preferred to stay longer, but reluctantly returned to Europe because of ill health, likely the result of tropical diseases. They arrived with vivid recollections, volumes of notebooks filled with sketches, myriad animal specimens, as well as seeds, bulbs and pressed flowers.

It took four years, but Maria’s masterpiece, a book about the insects of Surinam, was published in 1705. Sixty gorgeous plates depict the different developmental stages of each species on the animal’s host plant. Critical acclaim followed, but not financial gain, as she barely recovered the cost of publication. The Royal Society of London praised Maria’s work, even if it did not offer her membership (the first woman member would not be admitted for another 250 years).

Banana flower, young bananas and saturnid moth from Maria Merian’s book “Metamorphis insectorum Surinamensium”

After her death of a stroke at the age of 69, Tsar Peter the Great bought nearly 300 of her watercolors for Russia’s first art museum, later to be curated by Maria’s daughter, Dorothea. She also published her mother’s third European caterpillar book posthumously. Carl Linnaeus, the “inventor” of the binomial nomenclature, cited her extensively in the 10th edition of his 1758 Systema Naturae. In subsequent centuries, Maria’s “amateur” accomplishments were largely forgotten, until she was rediscovered, and recognized as a trailblazer and scientist ahead of her time. Her portrait graced the 500 Deutschmark bill, before the introduction of the Euro.

Pineapple plant and tropical cockroach from Maria Merian’s book “Metamorphis insectorum Surinamensium”

I’m grateful to Joyce Sidman. Her The Girl who drew Butterflies acquainted me with a remarkable woman whose contributions to the life sciences should not be overlooked. 303 years ago to the day, Maria Merian passed away on January 13, 1717.

Bitte verzeiht mir, daß es wegen der Länge dieses Beitrags heute keine deutsche Übersetzung gibt.