Stunning Drawings of Seaweed from a Book by Self-Taught Victorian Marine Biologist Margaret Gatty
The tenderness of feathers meets the grandeur of trees in the otherworldly life-forms of the seas, which offered an unexpected entry point for women in science.
By Maria Popova
Although the Victorian botanist and photographer Anna Atkins became the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images and the first woman to take a photograph, she was one of very few women who managed to subvert and transcend the era’s limiting gender roles in intellectual life and creative work. It was a time when women were formally excluded from science — the great scientific institutions of the era didn’t admit female members until pioneering German astronomer Caroline Herschel and Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville became the first women admitted into the prestigious Royal Astronomical Society in 1835. But astronomy has always led the way, in science and in society. Natural history lagged far behind. London’s Linnean Society — the ivory tower of botany — wouldn’t even allow women to attend its meetings, much less admit them as members, which didn’t happen until 1905. It was the same Linnean Society that barred beloved children’s book author Beatrix Potter from presenting a paper containing her little-known yet revolutionary contributions to mycology, which remained dormant for decades.
But women found one particularly opportune loophole in entering science: algae-hunting. It was another children’s book author, Margaret Gatty (June 3, 1809–October 4, 1873), who took this popular hobby — one with such famous practitioners as George Eliot and Queen Victoria herself — and brought to it a new level of scientific rigor.
Through a physician friend, she became fascinated with marine biology and entered into correspondence with some of the era’s most prominent marine biologists. Gatty eventually educated herself in the science of the seas and taught herself to draw her specimens in exquisite detail.
In 1848, five years after Anna Atkins’s pioneering cyanotypes of sea algae, Gatty published British Sea-Weeds (public library | public domain) — a stunningly illustrated field guide to local algae, fourteen years in the making, detailing 200 specimens in two volumes.
Although Gatty didn’t illustrate the specimens herself — an unknown artist hired by the publisher did — and she even disliked the drawings, in them the otherworldly life-forms of the sea come to life with the tenderness of feathers and the grandeur of trees. Algae, like moss, become a reminder that beauty beckons from even the most overlooked corners of our glorious cosmic accident of a planet.
Besides the eight-six beautiful hand-drawn artworks, the book contains Gatty’s sensible and at times countercultural advice to women on how to practice this peculiar form of early citizen science. In an era when Victorian women were given a list of don’ts for riding bicycles, including “don’t wear a man’s cap” and “don’t go out after dark without a male escort,” Gatty counsels in the introduction:
Feel the luxury of not having to be afraid of your boots… Feel all the comfort of walking steadily forward, the very strength of the soles making you tread firm — confident in yourself, and, let me add, in your dress. Verily we women are all, “more or less” (as sea-weed descriptions have it), at the mercy of our dress! It is an unpleasant truth, but a truth it is. Does it not require an actual effort of moral courage, for instance, to go to a dinner-party, when you know that you are by no means fresh from the hands of a milliner, but that other people are likely to be pre-eminently so?
Complement with some striking nineteenth-century illustrations of owls, then revisit trailblazing French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet on gender in science and the nature of genius.
Published April 27, 2017