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.

Victorian Botany: Seaweed

Title page of Specimens of Sea Weeds, British (circa 1840), Yale Center for British Art.

Along with ferns, which were discussed in the last post, Victorians were also fascinated by seaweed or macroalgae, to be more botanically correct.  While ferns became popular in the 19th century, seaweed had already piqued interest in the later 18th century.  Sales of the estates of the Duchess of Portland (1715-1785) and Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), who both owned herbaria, included seaweed collections.  While the earlier attraction was among the upper classes, pursuit of aquatic plants grew as natural history became a more popular pastime.  This was due to the 19th century’s expanding educational opportunities, cheaper publications, and increasing leisure time for those in the middle and lower classes.  Trains made travel more accessible, as did more and better roads.  Because Britain is an island, it’s not surprising that seaside areas became popular vacation spots.  Since many people were already accustomed to studying the plants and animals around them, they brought this curiosity with them to the seashore and began collecting sea life.  In the 1830s, the first aquaria were developed (Brunner, 2005).  For those more interested in documenting than nurturing what they encountered, a seaweed herbarium was often the answer.

Just as fern albums were popular souvenirs, so were seaweed books.  I examined several of these along with a small herbarium at the Museum of Natural History in Providence, Rhode Island; this experience hooked me on herbaria.  After my visit, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of collectors, often women, making their leisure time profitable by learning about nature.  One of the museum’s albums was created by Mrs. George Peabody Wetmore, wife of a former governor, who summered in Newport, Rhode Island.  In Britain, it was places like Bath where shops sold blank albums to be filled by vacationers, or already-made ones for those who wanted a souvenir without the work. 

The technique for preparing specimens was different from that for land plants. The alga was floated in a pan of water, then a sheet of paper was placed underneath the specimen and gently raised to catch it.  Some collectors recorded the Latin name and even where it was found, others included no information at all.  The latter albums were definitely made for their aesthetic qualities, with the specimens mounted on paper doilies and sometimes with several species on a page arranged to form a landscape or to resemble flowers spilling from a paper basket (see image above).  In this genre, art and science were definitely intertwined.

These interconnections are brought out in an intriguing book called Ocean Flowers (Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher, 2004), that deals with mounted specimens, nature prints, and botanical art, focusing on aquatic plants.  One of the most spectacular displays of macroalgae in the 19th century was the work of Anna Atkins who produced hundreds of nature prints in the form of cyanotypes of seaweeds in her Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-53), considered the first published book of photographs.  A cyanotype is a form of photograph created by placing a specimen on chemically treated paper that turns deep blue when exposed to light, usually by placing the preparation in bright sunlight.  Each of Atkins’s photographs is labeled with the species name, so there is a nod to science, even if the date and location of collection aren’t given.

Many collectors were definitely more scientific.  One example is Margaret Gatty who was introduced to algae when she visited the shore to recover from the delivery of her seventh child.  Someone loaned her a guide to British algae, and she became entranced.  She started collecting specimens and matching them to descriptions in the book.  Soon she was in contact with experts like William Henry Harvey, who realized from her keen observations that Gatty was someone whom he could guide and in the process acquire specimens and other information.  They corresponded until his death, he and his wife visited the Gatty family, and Gatty herself prepared exsiccatae organized according to Harvey’s guide to British algae.  Harvey collected broadly while he lived in South Africa and later when he traveled to Australia.  He created specimen sets that are found in many herbaria, since serious botanists were also interested in these organisms. 

I want to end with one more example, a seaweed album with 293 species now held at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California.  It was described in an article by Michele Navakas (2018) who writes that leafing through it, she could feel the creator’s passion for the subject.  She also admits that the digital version available on the library’s website, great though it is, just doesn’t give a sense of its impressive physicality, with its gold embossed red leather cover.  It was published in runs of fifteen copies, the work of  Charles Durant, a Jersey City stockbroker who enjoyed walking along the beach near his home, across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan.  This was in the mid-19th century when both sides of the river were very different from what they are today and when the river was alive with intertidal life.  To produce the exsiccatae, Durant spent, according to his records, 2000 hours of work on the project that had him walking a thousand miles searching for the right specimens.  It was obviously a labor of love, and it is wonderful that we can at the very least experience it digitally.


Armstrong, C., & de Zegher, C. (2004). Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Brunner, B. (2005). The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium. Princeton Architectural Press.

Navakas, M. (2018). A book full of seaweed. Huntington Frontiers, Spring/Summer, 8–12.

The Algal World


Anna Atkins, Confervae, Cyanotype. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

A recent Twitter post from the Manchester Museum Herbarium said that they were getting ready for a tour; attached was a photo of a seaweed album and specimen. This reminded me that I was lured into the herbarium world by just such material. I was on a tour given by the curator of collections, Marilyn Massaro, at the Roger William Natural History Museum in Providence, Rhode Island. The museum has a 6,000-specimen herbarium, most dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries; it is like a botanical time capsule of the period. Rhode Island has so much coastline, it’s not surprising the collection includes seaweed albums, since creating them was a popular pastime in the 19th century, especially among women. It was considered ladylike to collect plants, and many macroalgae are so aesthetically pleasing that they were particularly attractive specimens. Blank albums were even sold for collections created on vacation. When Dr. Massaro showed us several of these books, I was fascinated by them. When I returned home, I tried to learn more about herbaria, and this became a long-term obsession with them, which, in turn, led to this blog.

I returned to Providence several months later for a better look at the collection, and Dr. Massaro showed me related archival material. This included a 1926 letter from William L. Bryant, the museum director at the time, to Mrs. George P. Wetmore of Newport thanking her for the collection of sea mosses she had donated. This is one in a series of letters among Bryant, Mrs. Wetmore, and her daughter, Edith Wetmore. When Edith sent the album, she asked Bryant to thank her mother. He wrote back asking for her mother’s name so he could thank her properly. Edith responded in another handwritten note saying: “It did not dawn on me that you would not know that, coming as the album did from Newport, you could only have received it from Mrs. George Peabody Wetmore.” George Peabody Wetmore was governor of Rhode Island from 1885-1887, and Edith obviously assumed that his name would still be familiar to all 40 years later. As a final point, Edith mentioned that this collection was originally offered to the Children’s Museum in Newport, but they already had such an album and thought it should go to a “bigger institution.” This suggests two things: that they knew the Wetmore name, and that such albums were common at the time. I now appreciate the latter fact because most herbaria in coastal areas in the US and Britain boast these collections. They are hardly a rarity, even though preparing specimens required a certain skill. Some are now considered more as works of art.

Unlike terrestrial plants, seaweeds don’t have much rigid structural material, so they are limp once removed from water. The trick to mounting them is to slip a sheet of stiff paper under a specimen floating in water and then raise the sheet with the plant spread upon it. There is enough sticky material on the plant’s surface that it doesn’t have to be pasted down. It will adhere to the paper, and voila, there is a herbarium specimen—or an album page. With a little practice, this technique works remarkably well and results in beautiful specimens, with all the delicate filigree of the algae artistically arranged. It is no wonder that seaweed albums became such a fad.

But interest in macroalgae was really more than a fad, it was a serious area of study for many professional and amateur botanists. The leader of the pack was probably William Henry Harvey (1811-1866), an Irish botanist who wrote extensively on algae, producing definitive works on British, North American, and Australian species. While in Australia he collected numerous specimens of each species in order to finance his trip, writing that he intended to create 50 collections, with 200 to 600 specimens in each. From the number of Harvey specimens in the US, Britain, and Australia, he must have come close to reaching his goal. Even the small William Darlington Herbarium at West Chester College in Pennsylvania has 272 sheets, and Darlington wrote to John Torrey that he had heard about Harvey’s lectures in Boston, so the Irishman’s trip to the United States was a noteworthy botanical event.

Like all industrious botanists of the time, Harvey maintained a large network of correspondents who could provide him with information and with specimens. It would be difficult to find an algologist of that period who did not have contact with him. Since he was working at the same time that seaweed collecting was popular, many of these individuals were women, some of whom were as passionate and hardworking as himself. Amelia Griffiths (1768-1858) collected along Britain’s western coast and sent materials to Harvey. She was assisted by her maid Mary Wyatt, who under Griffiths’s guidance produced bound volumes of mounted of Devon algae (1834-1840) to which Harvey referred his readers when he published his unillustrated Manual of British Flora (1841). Margaret Gatty (1809-1873), who wrote nature books for children particularly about the seaside, was serious about algae and her herbarium of 8000 specimens, which includes specimens sent by Harvey, is preserved at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. Among the most impressive presentations of seaweed was that of Anna Atkins who created Photographs of British Algae (1843-1853), a collection of blue cyanotypes, one of the earliest versions of photographs [see Figure].

At Cambridge University Herbarium, there is a collection of hundreds of watercolors of macroalgae, amazingly beautiful and accurate. They were done by Mary Philadelphia Merrifield (1804-1889), an artist who was originally attracted to seaweed for their beauty, but then went on to study them seriously, publishing several scientific articles. When I visited Cambridge, Christine Bartram, the chief herbarium technician, showed me the paintings and told me about discovering them. Shortly after the collection was moved into a new building, Bartram had an inquiry about Merrifield from someone who had bought a house, found Merrifield letters there, and was curious about her. Bartram recalled that during the move she had seen a shoebox marked “Merrifield,” was able to hunt it down, and found the watercolors. Now they are being preserved more fittingly and being studied.

Before I leave the 19th century, I must mention Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815), who has been called Ireland’s first female botanist. She is at the early end of the seaweed craze and lived near the coast in Cork. Like many at the time, she was encouraged to take up nature study as a healthy hobby by a physician in Dublin where she had been sent to convalesce. Though she was never robust and died young, she wholeheartedly devoted herself to botany under the tutelage of James Mackay, curator at the Botanic Garden of Trinity College, Dublin. He suggested that she study seaweeds when she returned home to Cork, and most of her collections are from the Bantry Bay area. He also put her in touch with the algologist Dawson Turner, with whom she exchanged information and specimens, some of new species. As well as preparing specimens, she produced accurate drawings and watercolors. Hutchinson was known for being able to find and correctly identify rare species. Her specimens are now primarily in the Natural History Museum, London, and most of her drawings are at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Though it pains me leave seaweed hunters and the 19th century here, I must in order to move on to other wonders of the algal world, including diatoms, the subject of the next post.

Atkins, A. (1843-1853). Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (Vol. 5 volumes).

Harvey, W. H. (1849). A Manual of British Algae. London: van Voorst.

Wyatt, M. (1834-1840). Algae Danmonienses. Torquay: Cockrem.