Broadening Botany through Books: Women

This last post in this series on books (1,2,3), deals with one that was published over 20 years ago, but I just read it recently and think it is still timely.  In Revealing New Worlds: Three Victorian Women Naturalists, Suzanne Sheffield (2001) focuses on how Margaret Gatty, Marianne North, and Eleanor Ormerod created original scientific contributions as well as works of science popularization.  They were British, well-off financially, and middle-aged when their natural history endeavors blossomed.  Sheffield writes:  “All three women saw science as an intellectual pursuit to provide them with the thrill of discovery and to bring meaning to their lives through productive work beyond the usual female roles dictated by society” (p. 153).  She makes clear that they did this while heeding many of the dictates of that society.  If this book were written today, I think the societal constraints would be examined more deeply since there has been much research done in this area relatively recently.  However, I don’t see Sheffield’s approach as a defect, since it pays attention less to cultural constraints and more to what these women were actually able to accomplish

When Margaret Gatty (1809-1873) was 39 and exhausted after the birth of her seventh child, she went to a seaside resort to recover.  The change from a bustling household routine left her with time on her hands.  As she walked on the beach, she found herself noticing the algae washed up on the sand.  One of her acquaintances lent her a book on seaweed and that was all it took to push her into an entirely new world.  She returned home rejuvenated and equipped with books on algae and equipment for collecting macroalgae in addition to pressed specimens and a few in jars of seawater.   Of course, she still had seven children, but she enlisted them in later collecting trips and also entertained them with books she wrote for young readers not only on seaside creatures but on other areas of natural history.  A devout Christian, she framed her narratives in terms of nature as a reflection of God’s power and goodness. 

But there was also another side to Gatty’s writings.  In order to learn more about algae, she began to correspond with botanists in the field, including William Henry Harvey.  These men maintained contact because, while they helped her identify specimens and guided her to new sources of information, she in turn sent them species that were rare and in some cases new to science.  She also wrote careful descriptions of the areas where she found them.  She produced a guide to seaweed based on Harvey’s A Manual of the British Marine Algae, but she included her own comments on each species.  She also amassed a collection of specimens now held at the University of St. Andrews herbarium in Scotland. 

I’d like to write more about Gatty, but I’ve got two other exceptional women to discuss.  Like Gatty, Marianne North (1830-1890) saw a major change in her life at age 39.  Until that time she had remained in the family home to care for her widowed father.  When he died, she was financially comfortable and could continue to travel, as she had done a number of times with him.  Though she did produce a memoir on her travels, her talents were not so much in writing but in painting.  She didn’t take her art seriously until after her father’s death, when she began to focus on painting plants.  Her approach was different from most botanical artists.  She worked in oils, not in watercolors, and she painted plants in situ, not against a blank background, but rather as they appear in nature surrounded by their peers. 

North traveled extensively and painted what she saw.  She was a very careful observer and a good artist.  She even painted some species that were new to science.  Since she had the financial resources, she left money for a building at Kew to house hundreds of her paintings.  The North Gallery has two rooms on the first floor with a balcony gallery above one of them.  The walls are literally covered with paintings, a very 19th-century exhibition style.  The effect is almost overwhelming and may be one reason her work is sometimes denigrated:  it is difficult to attend to any one piece.  But as Sheffield points out, North was prescient in presenting plants as they exist in nature; she was also aware of how humans were degrading nature.  In her memoir, she wrote of the destruction of habitats as plantations were created in British colonies.

I am giving short shrift to the third Sheffield subject Eleanor Ormerod (1828-1901) not because she doesn’t deserve better, but she worked in entomology, not botany.  While she became interested in insects while in her twenties, she came into her own at 45 after her father died.  As Sheffield describes her, Ormerod was a “convincing popularizer and a closet professional” (p. 173).  In relation to the latter, she published 22 Reports of Observations of Injurious Insects, in which she drew on the expertise not only of scientists, but also of farmers and laborers who had firsthand knowledge of insect behavior and damage.  In addition, she experimented in her garden.  Since she prized her professionalism, it was very important to her that at the end of her life she received the first honorary degree awarded to a woman by the University of Edinburgh.


Sheffield, S. L.-M. (2001). Revealing New Worlds: Three Victorian Women Naturalists. New York: Rutledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s