At a time when women had no right to vote and virtually no access to higher education, very rarely owned property and were themselves considered the property of their husbands, Potter became a commercially successful writer and artist, using the royalties from her books to purchase her famed Hill Top Farm, where she lived simply and with great love for the land for the remaining four decades of her life.
But no aspect of Potter’s kaleidoscopic genius is more fascinating than her vastly underappreciated contribution to science and natural history, which comes to life in Linda Lear’s altogether magnificent Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (public library).
The pervasive Victorian enthusiasm for natural history produced quite a few female amateur scientists, including ornithologist Genevieve Jones, lepidopterist Maria Merian, and fossil-hunter Mary Anning — “amateur” being not a reflection of their scientific rigor and dedication, which were formidable, but of the fact that a formal scientific education was virtually inaccessible to women, except for the rare Ada Lovelace or Maria Mitchell, and membership in scientific societies was strictly reserved for men. But Potter’s scientific work was exceptional in that she deliberately tried to penetrate the very institutions that dismissed women’s scientific labor solely on the basis of gender.
By her early twenties, Potter had developed a keen interest in mycology and began producing incredibly beautiful drawings of fungi, collecting mushroom specimens herself and mounting them for careful observation under the microscope.
But her interest went far beyond the mere aesthetics or symbolism of mushrooms — she was studious about their taxonomy, taught herself the proper technique for accurate botanical illustration, and worked tirelessly to get an introduction to the eminent mycologist Charles McIntosh.
Potter soon began conducting her own experiments with spores she had germinated herself. She was particularly captivated by lichens, considered at the time the “poor peasants of the plant world,” in the words of the great botanist Linnaeus — a statement itself belying the dearth of scientific understanding at the time, for lichens are not plants but a hybrid of fungi and algae.
This hybrid nature, first proposed by the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener in 1869 and believed by no one else for decades, seemed so laughable a concept that “Schwendenerist” became a term of derision. But young Beatrix’s experiments convinced her that Schwendener was on to something with his “dual hypothesis.” She set down her theories and empirical findings in a paper titled “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae,” accompanied by her breathtakingly detailed illustrations.
But between her and the acceptance of the truth stood formidable sociocultural forces: London’s Linnean Society, the bastion of Victorian botany, was exclusively male and barred women from membership, denied them access to the research library, and wouldn’t even allow them to attend the presentations of scientific papers.
A century later, the Linnean Society issued an apology of sorts for its historic sexism — its executive secretary formally acknowledged that Potter’s research had been “treated scurvily.” And yet to this day, Potter’s remarkable fungi illustrations are studied for their scientific accuracy and consulted by mycologists all over the world in identifying mushroom species. And, who knows, perhaps one day a kindly mycologist will discover a new species and name it after Potter.