In the old days, access to higher education and academic careers was restricted to young gentlemen. Nevertheless, European societies of the Early Modern Era considered it socially acceptable that girls got involved in natural history projects to study the “fruits of Mother Earth”. As a result, many women developed a real passion for plants and applied their diverse talents to increase botanical knowledge and support species conservation. Here, we highlight a few of the thousands of historical figures by recognizing their scientific achievements and revealing some curiosities about their incredible lives.
PIONEERING PLANT ILLUSTRATIONS AND SPECIES COLLECTIONS
Our journey in time and space begins in Europe at the end of the XVII century with the German entomologist MARIA SIBYLLA MERIAN (1647-1717). Since she was a child, she loved observing and drawing the whole life cycle of silkworms in their habitat. Over time, she produced beautiful scientific illustrations depicting the interaction between insects and plants. In her adult life, she spent two years in Suriname, where she captured all stages of development of tropical insects – such as exotic butterflies – with a particular focus on reproduction and interplay with the environment. Curiosity: she discovered metamorphosis in insects when she was a teenager!
A century later, the French herbalist JEANNE BARET (1740-1807) made history by becoming the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by ship … disguised as cabin boy! During the expedition, she contributed to the collection of 6000 species worldwide – including the colourful flowering vine Bougainvillaea brasiliensis (named after Louis Antoine de Bougainville, admiral of the ship used for scientific explorations). Curiosity: a Google Doodle by artist Sophie Diao on the 27th of July 2020 commemorated Jeanne’s 280th birthday!
In the Victorian era, the English botanist and photographer ANNA ATKINS (1799-1871) combined scientific knowledge with skills in cyanotype (i.e., a photographic process characterised by blue tones) to create amazing pictures of algal species and ferns she personally collected. She published the book “British Algae: Cyanotype Impression” – a beautiful example of the fusion between art and science – becoming the first person to illustrate nature using photography. Curiosity: some of her works are still displayed at important Art museums worldwide.
PROMOTING BIODIVERSITY CONSERVATION
Caroline Louisa Waring Calvert (aka LOUISA ATKINSON, 1834 – 1872) is another talented naturalist and illustrator – well known for her avant-garde role in science journalism in Australia. She discovered up to 800 new plant species in her country and actively participated in the conservation of local flora, envisioning the negative effects of the cultivation of crops imported from Europe to Oceania. Curiosity: as long skirts of the epoch were uncomfortable for botanical excursions, she pioneered “dress reform”.
When talking about the protection of biodiversity, we cannot forget to mention the American botanist and educator ELIZABETH GERTRUDE BRITTON (1858-1934), who contributed to the establishment of one of the most famous “plant sanctuaries” in the United States. Created at the end of the XIX century, the New York Botanical Garden is currently a world-class educational institution and conservation centre with more than one million living plants, and also well-equipped with research facilities. Curiosity: Elizabeth was passionate about mosses and published 170 papers in the bryology field (i.e., the study of bryophytes).
STUDYING GENETIC VARIATION IN CROP SPECIES
The American geneticist BARBARA MCCLINTOCK (1902-1992) worked for decades in the laboratory of Cold Spring Harbor (near NYC) on the dissection of diversity in corn cobs. Studying chromosomes and gene expression in this important crop species, she discovered that mosaic colour patterns of maize kernels was caused by the activity of “jumping genes”, mobile genetic elements (or transposons) that can change their location in the genome thus causing mutations. Curiosity: despite the initial disbelief of the scientific community, she finally received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 … 30 years after exposing results of her ground-breaking research!
In the same period but in another continent, the Indian botanist JANAKI AMMAL (1897-1984) specialised in cytogenetics and carried out her research on species of great agronomic interest such as medicinal plants, eggplant and sugarcane. Long before the structure of DNA was revealed, her work on crossbreeding of sugarcane led to the identification of a super sweet variety that greatly contribute to the development of the sugar industry in India. Curiosity: she also worked at the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), a research organization dedicated to the exploration and conservation of plant resources of the country.
STUDYING LIFE IN ADVERSE ENVIRONMENTS
Born in the Philippines, botanist and microbiologist ROSELI OCAMPO FRIEDMAN (1937-2005) specialised in the study of cyanobacteria (i.e., photosynthetic bacteria) and other microorganisms able to survive in extreme environments – such as cryptoendoliths that colonise empty spaces inside rocks. Curiosity: her work on the so-called extremophiles living in the dry valleys regions of Antarctica served as inspiration for astrobiologists and was even cited by NASA scientists hypothesising life on Mars in 1976.
Last but not least, our journey ends in Kenya with WANGARI MUTA MAATHAI (1940-2011), also known as Woman tree. Zoologist by training, she became increasingly worried about environmental degradation in her country and its devastating effects on life in rural areas. To fight against this problem, she launched the Green Belt Movement in 1977: she encouraged women of local communities to collect seeds of native trees and to grow them against deforestation. So far, this NGO has contributed to planting of more than 50 million trees and the creation of hundreds of tree nurseries for indigenous species. Curiosity: she was awarded the Nobel prize for peace in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development and democracy.
Wangari said “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and hope”.
Drawing by Maria Sybilla Merian