Yale University Press has just published my book In the Herbarium: The Hidden World of Collecting and Preserving Plants. In this series of posts, I’m going to try to describe how I got to this point. In part this is obviously a way to promote sales. While admitting that, I also promise to cease promoting when this series ends. And don’t worry, like all the other series, it will only be four posts, not a hundred and four. Equally important to me is that this series gives me the opportunity to acknowledge and thank people who supported me in so many ways to get here.
As I have admitted many times in this blog, I am not a botanist, though I did learn a love of plants from my mother, who nurtured them in our house and yard. She was very proud of winning the All-Ireland prize in botany when she was in high school, before immigrating to the US. So I guess there is botany in my blood. However, for most of my life in biology I was in love with cells, not plants. For extra reading in my freshman biology course, we were assigned a book full of electron microscope images of cells. I don’t remember anything I read, but the images stuck with me. I was intrigued that there could be so much going on in such a tiny world. Molecular biology and microbiology became my focus. After completing my master’s, I took a job teaching nonscience majors at St. John’s University and started a doctoral program in biology at New York University. I soon discovered that it took a lot of work to lure students into the world of cells and molecules, so I had to broaden my horizons. As I did, plants and animals and human physiology began to creep into my consciousness and into my classroom.
This opening of my world took another turn in 1980 when my husband Robert Hendrick came into my life, and we began a wonderful 23-year-long relationship. He taught history at St. John’s (very convenient) and had a passion for art history. I began to learn about art and more importantly about really looking at art. Having Bob in my life also gave me the courage to do something I had wanted to do: write about biology. In 1982, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to publish a monthly column called “Biology Today” for The American Biology Teacher. I did so for 30 years and this work forced me to broaden my view of biology still further. I would write about genetics one month, and animal behavior the next, then tropical plants, then . . . . As I became more interested in art, the visual aspects of biology crept in as well.
However, all these wonderful parts of my life caused a problem. Though I had finished the course work for a biology doctorate, I couldn’t see myself doing laboratory research while still teaching and having a married life. I eventually entered a doctoral program in science education at New York University. I chose it because they offered a Ph.D. as well as an Ed.D. option, and I wanted to have the rigor of the former. Also, it offered a number of courses in the history and philosophy of science. Two fortuitous things then happened over the next couple of years. First, I came upon a book in the St. John’s library entitled On Aesthetics in Science (Wechsler, 1978). Wow, who knew the two went together? That same day I decided this would be the subject of my dissertation. I had the blueprint right there. Needless to say, it wasn’t that easy. Shortly afterwards Cecily Cannan Selby became a member of the science education department after a distinguished career in electron microscopy research and then in science administration. Cecily had long been fascinated by the relationship between art and science, so almost instantly I had a thesis adviser.
In my research I soon came across a book called The Mind and the Eye by Agnes Arber (1954) where she discusses her experiences in plant morphology research and in drawing her own illustrations. Through these she became convinced that art and science were intimately related. When Bob and I were each asked to contribute essays to a volume on women in biology (Grinstein et al., 1987), I chose Arber as my subject and he chose Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps. Then I began sliding down the slippery slope of botany through Phelps’s immensely popular 19th-century textbook on botany and Arber’s influential book on early modern herbals (1938). This eventually led me to take botanical illustration courses at New York Botanical Garden, further deepening my interest in art and plants.
Bob and I had fun doing our own research and slowly becoming more interested in each other’s disciplines. At conferences, I soon learned that co-presenting was not the way to go. We would each present, but on related topics such as Louis Pasteur from the scientific and science popularization perspectives or the art and ecology in the 19th century landscapes of Frederic Church. Then Bob was given a dire cancer diagnosis. The next morning he said: “The worst thing about this is that I’ll die, and you’ll remarry.” I laughed in his face. I had thought of a thousand things over the last 24 hours and that was definitely not one of them! However, several years after his death in 2003, he did allow me to fall in love again. How I was moonstruck by herbaria is the subject of my next post.
Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution, A Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Arber, A. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Grinstein, L., Biermann, C., & Rose, R. (Eds.). (1997). Women in the Biological Sciences Women in the Biological Sciences—A Biobibliographic Sourcebook. Norwalk, CT: Greenwood Press
Wechsler, J. (Ed.). (1978). On Aesthetics in Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.