Not everyone is a science genius or a math whiz—those kinds of smarts are absolutely not prerequisites to joining the geeky gal party. Some brilliant ladies in history have made their mark by doing things no one had ever done before, going places no geek had ever gone, gathering materials and plants and measurements and stories no nerd had ever dared to explore. From botanists to bicyclists, these awesome adventuring women broke the mold on everything it meant to be a lady in olden times. They followed their passions, and the world is better for it.
“Ever since my youth I have been engaged in the
examination of insects….I set aside my social
life and devoted all my time to these observations
and to improving my abilities in the art of
painting, so that I could both draw individual
specimens and paint them in lively colors.”
For me, the phrase lady explorer automatically conjures a colonialist image of a quiet but hardy Victorian woman floating down the Nile in a dahabeeyah while sweating delicately under a dainty (but ineffective) lace parasol. But for Anna Maria Sibylla Merian, the term meant much, much more. Maria got into the exploring business for the cold, hard science—and she was the first person ever to do it.
Centuries before our nineteenth-century English roses were heading down to Africa, and only a decade and a half after Galileo had been put on trial for claiming that the Earth revolved around the sun, Maria was born in Frankfurt, Germany. It was 1647, one year before the end of the devastating Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that began with Protestant countries’ desire to split from the Catholic Holy Roman Empire. The conflict ultimately devolved into powerful people arguing over who had the most power (meanwhile, approximately one-half the people in Germany died of the fighting, famine, or ye olde pesky plague). Maria was born into a guild family; her relatives on her dad’s side were publishers, part of a larger craftsmen’s union that controlled who got to do the crafting and how. Maria’s father owned his own printing press and engraved and published his own books (he was best known for a series of illustrated journeys to the New World), but he died when Maria was just three years old. Even though her mother remarried, this time to a still-life painter, as a girl Maria was technically forbidden from officially taking on a journeyman’s apprenticeship (meaning that she couldn’t travel around and learn from other artists). Instead, her stepfather, brothers, and their apprentices taught her at home, and young Maria loved it.
Admittedly, she loved it a little differently from the rest of her family and, you know, every other painter in the known world. Back in the day, floral still-life artists would learn their craft by staying in the studio to copy other artists’ paintings of isolated flowers. But Maria was into all the otherstuff that went down around flowers in their natural habitat—particularly, bug stuff. By age thirteen, she’d begun to collect and observe an entire array of silkworms inside, and outside she’d watch caterpillars squiggle along the ground. (Later stories would attribute Maria’s troubling—to her mother, anyway—love for entomology to her mom looking at a cabinet of dead bugs while pregnant, but today we know that isn’t how science works. Probably.)
Maria wasn’t just watching the bugs be all weird and cute. She was acting like a tiny scientist, noticing that, in time, her fuzzy friends would wrap themselves up into tiny “date pits” (her term) and then emerge as butterflies. This notion was pretty remarkable in an era when science was 100 percent certain that frogs and insects just popped right out of the ground, fully formed. (Seriously, one guy, the seventeenth-century scholar Athanasius Kircher in his book Mundus Subterraneus, was like, all you need to do is drop some dead flies, honey, and water on a copper plate, bake at 450 degrees or whatever, and bam! you’ll have your very own flies. It’s that easy!) Maria knew better, and she even documented the metamorphoses of caterpillars nine years before Marcello Malpighi, the man who would ultimately receive credit for the “discovery.”
When she was eighteen (Old Maid status in seventeenth-century terms), Maria married her stepdad’s apprentice, Johann. The couple moved to his hometown of Nuremberg and had two girls, Johanna (named for her father, because that’s how you did back then) and Dorothea (named for one of Maria’s best girlfriends, another lady painter in town). Maria set up a little school to teach young girls how to paint (watercolor only, since the guilds made it illegal for women to use oils) and even started applying her own designs to linens and embroideries. It was in Nuremberg, with her husband’s assistance, that Maria published her first nontext three-volume book of copperplate flower still-lifes, Neues Blumenbuch (New Flower Book). Maria’s book of flower still-lifes looked basically like everyone else’s, except she occasionally added her own flair by depicting a fly or little moth flittering around the petals. Dissatisfied with maintaining the status quo and just painting a bunch of pretty flowers (and still spending a ton of time combing through her garden, the town moat, and the gardens of her wealthy lady friends for fun bug finds that she would cultivate in her workshop), the then-thirty-two-year-old citizen scientist published two more volumes of fifty plates plus text, this time describing moths, butterflies, larvae, and host plants, entitled Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung (A Very Long German Title about How Caterpillars Marvelously Transform and Eat Weird Stuff). Even cooler, she published the text in vernacular German instead of science-y Latin, which meant lots of regular people could read her book and understand caterpillars.
But not everything was sunshine and caterpillars. For one thing, it seems as if Maria’s husband was not the greatest of guys. In 1685, having briefly moved back to Frankfurt after her father’s death, Maria, her mother, and her two daughters ran away from Johann and followed Maria’s half-brother to a culty religious community in the northern Netherlands. These guys—the Labadists—were hardcore Protestants who believed in forsaking all sinful earthly temptation-y goodness, and they (thankfully) told Maria that her marriage was invalid because Johann wasn’t a believer. Though Johann arrived and set to banging down their door (even taking up construction jobs outside the colony walls so he could drag his wife back to Nuremberg), the Labadists refused to let him in. He eventually gave up his creepy pursuit, returned to his hometown, and petitioned for a divorce. Maria went back to using her maiden name and, as far as we know, never spoke of him again…although other people would. One of Maria’s friends later said that Maria’s life with Johann was “evil and miserable,” and another paper mentioned his “shameful vices,” so good riddance, I say.
Even though Maria was now trying to be intensely religious, she still loved lots of material, secular stuff like bugs and art—so much so that she began to miss her pre-Labadist life and started examining frogs on the colony land on which she lived. Maria also had access to other finds from afar. The Labadists had tried to establish a South American colony in Suriname (which the English had given to the Dutch in exchange for Manhattan in 1674), and though the colony there was abandoned in 1688 (the governor was shot by his own soldiers, colonists were humiliated by pirates and made to land naked, slaves escaped en masse to live in the jungle because screw slavery, etc.), the colonists had sent some of their finds back to the Labadists in the Netherlands. Maria gazed “with wonderment [at] the beautiful creatures brought back from the East and West Indies” (e.g., incredibly colorful butterflies and moths), but she was frustrated at being limited to seeing these creatures in their dead-and-pinned-to-a-board form. Like any good scientist, she wanted to see caterpillars alive and in situ: where they came from, what plants they ate, what they looked like in their natural habitat. By contrast, every other scientist back then was content just to get some dead bugs in the mail from overseas, chop ’em up, and be like “Science’d!” Maria, who lived for the outdoors, preferred experiential knowledge gained firsthand.
After her mother passed away, Maria took her two girls and moved to Amsterdam, where things were happenin’: art had flourished in the twenty years since Rembrandt’s death, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was making the first microscopes, and Maria could continue teaching art to young women and even do some work for the city’s botanical garden. Her desire to see the jungle had never faded; she just had no idea how she was going to get herself there. She lacked any real connections in the government or the church to gain access to grants, and besides, they didn’t just send women with no formal education or training on adventures to the New World. The money had to come from somewhere. So Maria up and sold more than two hundred of her own paintings, was granted a small loan from the government, and in June 1699 bought herself and her twenty-one-year-old daughter Dorothea a one-way ticket on a ship to Suriname. She was the first person ever to self-fund an independent scientific expedition (and all before Kickstarter).
Two long, seasick months later, fifty-two-year-old Maria stepped off the ship in South America and was like…yikes. The Dutch had wrested control over Suriname from England mostly because they wanted the land to produce crops like sugar and cotton for the Dutch West India Company—which, of course, meant wealthy white plantation owners heralding over land worked by enslaved labor. When Maria landed, just before the turn of the century, many such enslaved workers had escaped to live in the jungle, but most were still in captivity and were being abused by the Dutch. Maria hated the cruelty, and in her writing she called out the colonists for their reprehensible behavior. She also faced down unbearable heat and humidity, stinging ants, mosquitoes, tarantulas, snakes, leprosy, stomach worms, fevers, and horrifying storms that would cause those same ants to swarm into colonists’ homes. If she wanted to leave the much-embattled sugar plantations to observe insects in the wild, she had to grab a machete and hack through the jungle. Despite having no formal training for conducting field expeditions, Maria trekked into the harsh wilderness to do what she’d traveled halfway around the world to do: examine caterpillars in their natural environment.
Seeing the insects in real life was immediately rewarding, as Maria recalled when describing the color of one as being “like polished silver overlaid with the loveliest ultramarine, green and purple, and indescribably beautiful; its beauty cannot possibly be rendered with the paint-brush.” Believing that “patience is a very beneficial little herb,” Maria painted on vellum coated with a white primer, which she would then slide into a paper frame attached to a page in a bound notebook; on the opposite page she wrote associated notes, including details of the insect’s habitat, reproductive habits, food, if it was nocturnal or diurnal, what its chrysalis looked like, and more. She spoke to the indigenous people of Suriname to discover their uses for plants and their names for insects, which she included along with all her observations. As the first European to ever really study the rainforest, Maria made the earliest European depictions of leafcutter and army ants and provided descriptions of a type of frog called the Pipa pipa, which would totally send the faint-hearted screaming in the other direction: “The female carries her young on her back; her uterus runs down along her back and she catches her seeds there and they develop. When they ripen, they work their way out of the skin, creeping out one after the other as from an egg.” No thank you forever.
After just twenty-one months, Maria’s planned five-year journey was cut short by a bout of malaria, and she and Dorothea headed back to Amsterdam along with a Carib (or possibly Arawak) woman who likely acted as a servant to Maria and assisted with her research. Selling specimens she had collected abroad (including crocodiles, fireflies, and iguanas) and her paintings of said specimens to pay off the rest of her trip, the then-sixty-two-year-old Maria (“still very lively,” according to one purchaser) spent the next years painting, assembling, writing, engraving, and publishing her two-volume Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. The compendium—which you could buy in black-and-white or hand-painted color editions, assuming you had the ducats for it—included one hundred images of insects, plants, and even some animals of Suriname. Yet instead of cranking out boring, static still-lifes, Maria had drawn the insects full-size through their entire reproductive cycle, from caterpillar to chrysalis to moth or butterfly, always shown near the flower or plant they used as a food and life source and as part of the food chain. No one before had examined the lifecycle of insects and the way they cohabitated with nature in this way—the book was mind-blowing to both artists and scientists alike.
Though Maria was paralyzed by a stroke and died in 1717, at age seventy (which is darn good longevity for the early eighteenth century), her daughters Dorothea and Johanna published a third volume of their mother’s work after her death, before Johanna left to live in Suriname permanently. In the 1800s, a bunch of scientists tried to discredit Maria, partially because they were all ewwwww about women doing anything that wasn’t raising babies in a kitchen, and partially because they didn’t like that Maria had gleaned information directly from the native women of Suriname (with whom she had spoken at length about not only the plants that controlled the women’s reproductive systems, but also their plight as slaves).
Fortunately, modern science recognizes Maria’s achievement of cataloguing the lifecycles of nearly two hundred species of insects—some perhaps for the first and last time, for there’s no doubt that specimens from her Transformations of the Insects of Suriname have since gone extinct. Her paintings are so precise that today 73 percent of the creatures depicted can be identified to their genus and 66 percent to their exact species. The German word Vogelspinne (bird spider) probably derives from a label on one of her engravings of a large spider capturing a bird. She was the first person to show neotropical organisms in color, and she did it all with her own money and on her own time. Maria was happiest when she “set aside her social life” or “withdrew from society” and “devoted [her]self to these investigations.” Not only was she darn good at it, she also set a precedent for all future adventure science people (like you, perhaps?) to emulate and look up to.