Home > Friday Bookshelf > Friday Bookshelf – Maria Sibylla Merian

Friday Bookshelf – Maria Sibylla Merian

Some time back I saw an announcement in the Chronicle of Higher Education for a new book about Maria Sibylla Merian. The book is Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd. atheneowl-140-exp-Chrysalis_cover.jpg If you’ve checked out the most recent Scientiae Carnival (and if not, why not?!?), you’ll know that Peggy at Women in Science has included it in a list of recommended reading. It looks like a great book and I’d like to add it to my ever-expanding TBR bookshelf.


Maria Merian has held a special place in my heart for many, many years. I first encountered her nearly twenty years ago (geez, I’m getting old) in a book by Londa Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Schiebinger’s book uncovers and collects the history of European and American women in science in the 16th to 19th centuries. It covers a lot of ground – some of it sketchily, some in more detail. I encountered the book as a graduate student at Duke University, struggling in a much-less-than-welcoming engineering department, with women’s studies as my refuge and support system. I was very interested in it from a scholarly point of view because of a paper I was working on at the time on Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds.
I made it two-thirds of the way through the book and then I just quit. I think I felt so depressed at the time. Here was this book packed full of just oodles of information about women’s participation in science over the centuries, and had I ever heard even a snippet of this information in any of my classes anywhere? No. It was as if women in science, other than Marie Curie, simply did not exist prior to, oh, say, 1975 or so. You know, Title IX and all. And then, the history of women’s participation in science I was learning about was often so heartbreaking. Women had to struggle so very hard, they had so many barriers placed in their way, the space they could carve out for themselves was so very, very tiny. At some point, I just didn’t want to know anymore. The information was too heavy for my heart.
But Maria Merian – now she was really something. Schiebinger devotes over 10 pages to Merian. She was born in 1647, the daughter of an artist and engraver. She trained at home in art, and Schiebinger says this is what gave her her entree to science. Observation and illustration were common roles for women in early modern science, and Merian excelled at both. In 1679, she published Wonderful Metamorphosis and Special Nourishment of Caterpillars. In 1699, when she was 52, Merian traveled to Surinam with one of her daughters to pursue her insect research. Her unusual contribution was to sketch insects in all stages of metamorphosis and with the plants and fruits they fed upon. This work was published in Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.
Schiebinger notes that Merian “financed her own research and scientific projects” and that “six plants, nine butterflies, and two beetles are named for her”. In the 19th century, her work came under attack because she had paid attention to and recorded the knowledge of indigenous peoples in her books. For this, she was criticized for a lack of scientific exactitude. Another critic claimed her work was only popular because it was so “showy”. Hah. It is good to see Todd’s book bringing recognition back to Merian.
Schiebinger says that we should not think of Merian as an “exceptional” woman.

It would be a mistake to think that Maria Merian was merely an exceptional woman who, defying convention, made her mark on science. Merian’s life and career may have been exceptional but it was not unusual; Merian did not forge a new path for women as much as take advantage of routes already open to women. She emerged from the artisanal workshop, where it was not uncommon for women to engage in various aspects of production, and her ties to craft traditions facilitated her contribution to science.

What’s important to me here is this idea of Merian as not unusual, as taking advantage of the available options. When we search for our heroines, we don’t have to come up with trailblazing supergoddesses. If we imagine them in that way, they seem less like ourselves, more distant from our lives. Maria Merian was a working mother, who combined raising children and managing a household with her scientific work.
There are still a few complete copies of Merian’s books in existence, but in many cases the beautifully illustrated prints have been torn out of the books and sold indvidually as artworks. An entire intact folio fetches quite a sum. When I worked as a postdoc in Heidelberg, I had the extreme pleasure of seeing and handling one of her books in a rare bookstore. I can’t remember exactly which German city I was in at the time, but I remember the look and feel of the shop, and the way my heart pounded when the proprietor brought out the book.
Of course there was no way I could afford the book, but the proprietor did have loose pages that had already been cut from other books. And instead of being ridiculously expensive, like the book, they were only incredibly expensive. So I bought one.

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If you visit the National Museum of Women in the Arts, you can see some of Maria Merian’s work for yourself. There’s also lots of nice stuff available about her on their website here.
When I think of Maria Merian, I feel warm and happy inside, because no matter what the patriarchy wants to tell us, women have always been doing science, and doing it well.

Categories: Friday Bookshelf
  1. Kathleen Elizabeth Springhorn
    August 7, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Re: “Depressing”…
    Maria Sibylla Merian was a remarkable woman who should not be forgotten by history, and your great article is one more step toward enlightening history’s “dark corners”. It is incredible that your 21st century sentiments would echo those of Christine de Pizan, the first female professional author of France, who was born in the 14th century! Rosalind Brown-Grant captures it succinctlty in the introduction of her translation of de Pizan’s book, “The Book of the City of Ladies”: the common acceptance of 13th century tirades and villification against women “…so shocks and depresses Christine that she falls into a state of despair…”, but then she rallies in defense of women, and, in 1405, writes her epic biographical encyclopedia of remarkable women that should not be forgotten by history.
    Thank you, Judy Chicago, for celebrating Christine de Pizan in your iconic art project, “The Dinner Party”, Elizabeth A. Sackler, for bringing “The Dinner Party”, and its guest list of remarkable women who should not be forgotten by history, to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, for envisioning a global platform to bring the cultural contributions of remarkable women who should not be forgotten by history to the world, and for tirelessly refusing to be depressed…
    and thank you, Thus Spake Zuska, and all who rally to share the exciting contributions of women with others, bringing them greater recognition and equality. That is enlightening, and exciting!

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