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No. 397:
Maria Merian

Today, we meet the mother of entomology. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The middle 1600s didn't welcome women as intellectuals, but historian Lhonda Schiebinger tells how German women found an odd doorway into the life of the mind. It was not a door into the academies. Rather it was one that led into the trades. German women did a great deal in arts and textiles, for example. That was the door Maria Sibylla Merian passed through to become the first great entomologist.

Merian was born into a family of artists in 1647 and trained as an artist herself. When she was 18, she married another artist. They both set up businesses -- he as a painter, and she as a seller of painted silks and other fabrics.

That seems far from entomology -- the study of insects. But where, after all, does silk come from? Merian had started painting insects as a girl. Now she made a study of silk-spinning caterpillars. She traced the life cycles of all sorts of moths and butterflies. When she was 22, she published her first book: Wonderful Metamorphosis and Special Nourishment of Caterpillars. Two years later, she published a second book -- A Study of New Flowers. That one stretched the art of printing to new limits.

Finally, in her late 30's, Merian left her husband and joined a religious community. Some reports suggest that his "shameful vices" drove her to declare independence. In any case, she spent several years with this group baking, weaving, printing, and studying.

Finally, when she was 52, she moved to Suriname on the north coast of South America. Her group ran a mission there, and she went to study the insects of the new world. Out of that two-year study she wrote her third book: Metamorphosis of Suriname Insects. It was much more than a beautiful picture book, though it was certainly that. It also had a lot to say about native anthropology in the region as well.

Admiration for Maria Merian's groundbreaking work grew during the rest of her life, and through the 1700s. Her daughters were also artists. One worked in the court of Peter the Great. Her grand-daughter married the great mathematician Leonhard Euler in St. Petersburg.

Merian's freedom of the mind didn't catch up with her until the 19th century. She'd said too much about the human side of Suriname natives in her last book. That offended 19th-century colonialism. Critics finally emerged. They used minor errors in her taxonomies to attack her for defending South American natives against colonial mistreatment. But no matter. Recent years have seen a revival of her works. Some of her drawings were just being published for the first time in the 1970s.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Schiebinger, L., The Mind Has No Sex? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

For more on Merian, see Episode 2049.

I was stunned when I went surfing for Maria Merian images long after I did this episode back in 1990. There has been a resurgence of interest in her work, and you will find lush copies of many of her works on the web. Do take a look.  Her art provides a feast for the eyes: