The first female entomologist: Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)

I recently visited Amsterdam, where I came across the work of a German naturalist of whom I had not previously been aware.  The Rijksmuseum contains a book that dates back to 1730 and was written by (according to the museum plaque) the “first female entomologist”, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). The book, entitled De Europische Insecten (available online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library) contains hundreds of illustrations of species made by the author (who also happened to be an extremely talented artist).  You can see some of the detailed illustrations from the book at the Sotheby’s auction page for a copy that is for sale (at £25,000-30,000 it’s a bit out of my price range…) and an example of a page below.

A plate from De Europische Insecten

Merian’s story is an interesting one.  Born into a famous publishing family, her father passed away when she was three years old.  Her mother later married an artist, thus combining the literary and artistic aspects of Merian’s upbringing that would determine her career.  She began at the age of 13 by drawing and painting the silk worms that she caught around her home in Frankfurt.  As a young female artist, she was a popular tutor for the daughters of local wealthy families and this allowed her to both earn a good living and gain access to influential people (and their extensive gardens with all those wonderful insects!).  It was as a result of watching the development of caterpillars into butterflies that she became interested in metamorphosis, and this eventually led to her publication of Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (also available online in its entirety).  This volume, drafted by Merian after a two year visit to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America (which was cut short after she caught malaria), provided European scientists with some of the first full-colour images of the South American flora and fauna.  Merian undertook that trip at the age of 52 with her daughter, Dorothea Maria, and documented many new species of Lepidoptera, including all stages of the life cycle and the host plant on which the caterpillar lives – a wonderful resource for naturalists back home.  During her visit to Surinam, Merian spoke out against the mistreatment of slaves by Dutch plantation owners and took note of the names that indigenous peoples gave to the species she encountered.

Merian’s work was extremely valuable to Carl Linnaeus, who published in 1735 his Systema Naturae (also available online, but nowhere near as aesthetically appealing at Merian’s work) which laid-out the biological nomenclature that we use today.  In particular, the focus on metamorphosis has led to her being listed among the most influential entomologists of all time.  Merian was honoured with a Google Doodle to commemorate what would have been her 366th birthday on 3rd April 2013.  However, despite all this there is a pretty good chance that Merian died penniless in 1717 a few years after suffering a stroke.  But that is all the more reason to appreciate her work today, which is still among some of the most-highly valued and collectable natural history artwork in the world.

2013-05-03 16.15.00

The copy of De Europische Insecten in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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