Beatrix Potter, Mycologist: The Beloved Children’s Book Author’s Little-Known Scientific Studies and Illustrations of Mushrooms
By Maria Popova
Beatrix Potter (July 28, 1866–December 22, 1943) is one of the most beloved and influential storytellers of all time. The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her other gloriously illustrated children’s books tickle the human imagination through the fantastical aliveness of nature and its creatures, in a spirit partway between Aesop and Mary Oliver, between Tolkien and Thoreau. 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. Potter’s art was a formative influence for Maurice Sendak, who collected her books, traveled to her farm, winked at her famous costumed mice in his reimagining of Nutcracker, and incorporated some of her work into his illustrations for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves. Her 1913 book The Tale of Pigling Bland was a childhood favorite of George Orwell’s and became one of the key inspirations for his allegorical masterwork Animal Farm. (In addition to her extraordinary achievements and far-reaching creative legacy, I have always held special affection for Potter for the absurdly human reason that we share a birthday.)
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) — by far the best book on Potter and one of the finest biographies ever written, Lear’s prose itself a supreme work of art.
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. In the winter months, she frequented London’s Natural History Museum to study their displays. Lear writes:
Beatrix’s interest in drawing and painting mushrooms, or fungi, began as a passion for painting beautiful specimens wherever she found them. She never saw art and science as mutually exclusive activities, but recorded what she saw in nature primarily to evoke an aesthetic response. She was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques. Unlike insects or shells or even fossils, fungi also guaranteed an autumn foray into fields and forests, where she could go in her pony cart without being encumbered by family or heavy equipment.
There is also something quite poetic about Potter’s obsession with fungi — in her later children’s books, she bridged real life and fantasy by transmuting the animals and plants she observed in nature into whimsical characters and stories, and mushrooms have long symbolized this very transmutation, perhaps most prominently in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, which first captured the popular imagination the year Potter was born.
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. With his help and encouragement, she continued advancing her microscopic observations, which kindled in her an intense fascination with how mushrooms reproduced — something poorly understood at the time. 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 Linnaean 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. One of the Society’s most influential gatekeepers was William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, the despotic director of the famed Kew Gardens and a man of particularly misogynistic conviction — and it was he whom thirty-year-old Potter had to sway in order for her paper to be presented at the Society. His response was blatantly patronizing — he called her ideas unimportant “mares’ nests” that couldn’t possibly measure up to a subject this “profound” and dismissed her drawings without even looking at them.
That night, an indignant and furious Potter wrote in her diary:
I informed him that it would all be in the books in ten years, whether or no, and departed giggling.
Potter’s uncle, a respected scientist himself, was equally appalled by Thiselton-Dyer and took it upon himself to see to her paper’s presentation at the Society. Lear writes:
The general membership of the Society met at seven o‘clock on Tuesday evening, 1 April 1897 with President Albert C. L. G. Gunther in the chair. The business of the meeting was the reading of a paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae by Miss Helen B. Potter,” and the presentation of several exhibits by five distinguished fellows, including Thiselton-Dyer and George Murray. Since women were not allowed to be members or to participate in the meetings, Beatrix was not present… Afterwards, together with any slide drawings as exhibits, it was ‘laid on the table’ where it could be examined… “Laid on the table” had the specialized meaning in Linnean Society parlance of the time of “received but not seriously considered in open forum.” In short, while Beatrix’s paper was read at least in part, no substantive notice was given to it… Like other women at the time who attempted to gain a hearing for their scientific research at the Linnean, Beatrix’s theories were never seriously considered.
So the paper never even got to the point of peer-reviewing Potter’s actual reproduction hypothesis to determine whether it was correct — she (any “she”) was, it was made clear, not a peer and thus not worthy of such consideration.
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.
But Potter wasn’t too perturbed by the rejection — she channeled her genius and creative energy in a different direction. Only five years later, the self-published first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit sold out before the next commercial edition was even printed, and Potter became one of the most famous and successful children’s book artists and writers of her time, and soon of all time. The same reverent fascination with nature that had fueled her scientific work now appeared in a new guise in her stories, full not of the fantastical beings of fairy tales but of the realistic animals and plants native to the very woods in which she had collected her mushroom specimens.
In the epilogue to the book, Lear captures Potter’s larger legacy as a naturalist, environmentalist, and singular artisan who dedicated her life to weaving a profound reverence for nature into the very fabric of culture:
Beatrix Potter brought nature back into the English imagination with her books and her illustrations. She wrote most of them at a time when nature was viewed as something of little value, when the plunder of nature was more popular than its preservation. After her marriage [to William Heelis] in 1913 the emphasis of her imaginative work shifted more and more away from literature towards the land and the animals it sustained. Beatrix cared about the old ways, and about what was necessary to live simply in nature.
Imagination is the precursor to policy, the precondition to action. Imagination, like wonder, allows us to value something. Imagination allowed Beatrix Potter to value the natural world and to share the treasures she found in the Lake District and its culture. As a far-sighted businesswoman she understood that their preservation was inherently linked to the success of fell farming.
Beatrix Heelis’s stewardship created a singular moment in the recovery of nature in the twentieth century; a paradigm of environmental awakening.
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature is a glorious read in its entirety, detailing Potter’s creative evolution, her era-defying development as a businesswoman and entrepreneur, her intimate relationship with place and landscape, and much more. Complement it with the butterfly drawings of entomological illustrator Maria Merian and the bird eggs of self-taught artist Genevieve Jones, then revisit Jon Mooallem’s magnificent modern-day appeal to the environmental imagination.
Published July 28, 2015