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No. 891:
Maria Martin

Today, meet an invisible early American scientist. 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.

American science was pretty embryonic in 1831. We were a raw country, and smart people were just learning to speak scientifically. One of those people was 35-year-old Maria Martin.

Maria Martin was the younger sister of Harriet Bachman, who, in turn, was the wife of the Rev. John Bachman. Harriet suffered chronic tic douloureux. Maria was surrogate mother and tutor to her ailing sister's nine children. She taught them piano; and she wrote out her brother-in-law's sermons.

The talented and tireless Maria was also a fine artist. Within her strange shadow-life, she turned her talents to recording nature. But even that bore the face of service.

John Bachman was an important student of animal, bird, and plant life. He needed an artist to record his findings, and Maria Martin filled that need. She observed plant and animal life. She helped Bachman illustrate his papers.

In 1831 Bachman chanced to meet John James Audubon while Audubon was in Charleston. It was a perfect match -- Bachman the scientist, Audubon the artist. They began a friendship and collaboration that lasted until Audubon died 20 years later.

Audubon saw that Maria Martin could do the one thing he never really mastered. She could do the plant and animal surroundings that so energized his work. He'd worked with other artists in the past. Now he worked with her. For twenty years she anonymously completed his drawings.

In 1839 Audubon wanted to move from birds to beasts. Bachman warned him that he didn't know enough to do it alone. Audubon knew that was true. He asked Bachman to collaborate. Together they wrote The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. John Bachman turned down the presidency of South Carolina University to work on that project. Maria pitched in to do her usual large and silent portion of the task.

In 1846 the ailing Harriet Bachman died. Two years later John (now 56 and growing blind) and Maria (now 52) married. She devoted the rest of her anonymous life to him. Afterward, publishers forgot to include her name in books she'd illustrated. They simply wrote her out of history.

Today, we've pretty well sorted out which of Audubon's drawings she helped to create. Her other work is scattered about. She did snake illustrations for the first major American work on herpetology. Some of that work is in the Charleston Museum.

We were young in 1831 -- still learning to be scientists. Bachman and Audubon were major players. So was Maria Martin, but we didn't yet know how to make the women players visible -- in 1831.

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

(Theme music)

Bannon, L.E., Handbook of Audubon Prints. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co., Inc., 1980.

Ford, A., John James Audubon: A Biography. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.

Bonta, M.M., Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1991, Chapter 2, Maria Martin: Audubon's Sweetheart.

I am grateful to Jeffery Scoggins of Detering Book Gallery, Houston, for flagging the Bonta source for me -- for bringing this episode to my attention.