The Seamstress Who Solved the Ancient Mystery of the Argonaut, Pioneered the Aquarium, and Laid the Groundwork for the Study of Octopus Intelligence
By Maria Popova
Jeanne Villepreux-Power (September 24, 1794–January 25, 1871) was eleven when her mother died. Just before her eighteenth birthday, she set out for Paris from her home in rural France, on foot — a walk of more than 300 kilometers along the vector of her dream to become a dressmaker. On the way, the cousin assigned as her travel guardian assaulted her and fled with her identity papers. Jeanne made her way to a convent and, as soon as she managed to have new travel documents made by local police, kept going. But by the time she made it to Paris, the position she had been promised was already taken. The only job she could secure was as a seamstress’s assistant.
Four years and thousands of dresses later, Jeanne was tasked with outfitting a duchess for a royal wedding. At the ceremony, she met and fell in love with an English merchant, married him, and moved with him to the harbor city of Messina on the island of Sicily. There, she immersed herself in passionate reading about geology, archeology, and natural history — the closest a woman could get to a scientific education at the time — and set out to study the island’s ecosystem.
Walking the shoreline and wading into the sea in her long skirts, she fell in love with one of Earth’s most alien life-forms: the small sepia-like octopus Argonauta argo, known as paper nautilus for the thin, intricately corrugated shell of its females and the sail-like membranes protruding from it like a pair of bunny ears.
The argonaut had fascinated naturalists since Aristotle with the mystery of its spiral shell.
They wondered whether the animal made it, or, like the hermit crab, inherited as a hand-me-down.
They wondered why only the females had a shell, why its shape was so unlike that of the animal body it housed, and why the dweller could completely detach from the shell like no other mollusk did, yet never abandoned it.
They wondered how the shell managed to quadruple in size during the five-month reproductive period — an astonishing feat of on-demand engineering seen nowhere else in the animal kingdom.
In the memoir of her researches, Jeanne Villepreux-Power wrote:
Having for several years devoted to the natural sciences the hours that remained to me free from my domestic affairs, while I was classifying some marine objects for my study, the octopus of the Argonauta transfixed my attention above the rest, because naturalists have been of such various opinions about this mollusk.
Observing argonauts in the wild is incredibly difficult — the shy, skittish creatures flee the surface and plunge into the depths as soon as they feel they are being approached, puffing a cloud of ink between themselves and their perceived predator, even if she is only a scientist:
When the air is serene, the sea calm, and she believes herself unobserved, the Argonauta adorns herself with her beauties; but I had to be prudent enough to enjoy her rich colors and graceful pose, for this animal is very suspicious, and as soon as it perceives that it is being observed, it withdraws its membranes into its shell in the blink of an eye and flees to the bottom of the cage or the sea, reemerging to the surface only when it thinks it is safe from all danger. It is at this time that we can observe its movements and its habits.
And so, for ten years, Jeanne Villepreux-Power made it her “duty” to do “serious research” on the most contested aspects of the physiology, morphology, reproduction, and habits of these tender cephalopods. A skilled self-taught artist, she made her own drawing of what she saw.
Unlike other naturalists, who had studied preserved specimens, Jeanne realized that she could only discover the true origin of the shell if she observed living creatures. To bypass the evolution-mounted obstacle of their extreme shyness, she designed and constructed one of the world’s first offshore research stations — a system of immense cages she anchored off the coast of Sicily, complete with observation windows through which she could study the argonauts undisturbed. Every day, she prepared food for them, rowed her boat to the cages in her long skirts, and knelt at the platform, observing for hours on end.
But long skirts and long hours in cold water make not for a felicitous scientist. And so, in order to transfer her observations and experiments ashore, Jeanne Villepreux-Power pioneered the aquarium.
Her home became a marine biology lab, stacked with vast tanks, which she populated with living argonauts. Conducting experiment after experiment and observation after observation, magnifying eggs and shell fragments under her microscope, she set about illuminating the mysterious living realities of these otherworldly earthlings, following her intuition that — contrary to what her male peers believed — the females did make their own shells. She wrote:
I armed myself with patience and courage, and only after several months managed to dissolve my doubts and see my research crowned with happy confirmation.
In a series of groundbreaking experiments she began in 1833 — the final year of her thirties — the seamstress-turned-scientist solved the ancient nested mysteries of whether (yes), how (through a marvel of biochemistry), and when (within days of hatching) the argonaut makes its spiral home: With her elegant empiricism, Jeanne Villepreux-Power managed to “demonstrate, by unequivocal proofs, that the Argonauta octopus is the builder of its shell.”
She started with the obvious yet radical insight that you cannot understand the living morphology of a creature by studying dead specimens — to find out when and how the argonaut gets to have a shell, you must observe it from birth. And so she acquired three pregnant females, each housing thousands of eggs in its enlarged shell, and watched them hatch — tiny baby octopuses, naked in their gelatinous sacs. Every six hours, she visited the babies to observe them closely for three continuous hours.
One day, she carefully removed a nine-millimeter baby octopus from the mother and, upon examining it, noticed that it was in a position of self-embrace, its membranous arms enfolded around its sac, the end of which the baby had begun to fold into the shape of a spire. Not wishing to disturb the hatchling, she put it back under the mother and returned six hours later to examine it again. To her astonishment, the tiny octopus had already begun building its shell out of a thin film, following the geometry of the mother’s. Within hours, the thin film had begun to thicken into the signature furrows of the argonaut shell — here was living proof that the argonaut was the maker of its own shell, beginning almost at birth.
But her most revolutionary experiment demonstrated something no one else had even thought to wonder about — a living incarnation of Schopenhauer’s exquisite insight that “talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach [whereas] genius is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot even see.”
Jeanne made a small puncture in the shell of an adult female to see whether and how the animal would repair itself, and what that might reveal about its intelligence, in an era when science was yet to recognize the consciousness of non-human animals. She watched in marvel as the octopus protruded its front arms and, sweeping the silvery membranes previously thought to function as sails over the puncture like a windshield wiper, seal it back into cohesion with a glutenous substance, the chemical composition of which she analyzed and determined to be identical to the calcium carbonate of the original shell. The restored part, she observed, was more robust than the shell itself, “somewhat bumpy, puffy,” not following the regular furrows of the shell but corrugating sideways, almost perpendicularly to them — a sort of scar, the mollusk equivalent of what is known as “proud flesh” in horses.
In a wildly imaginative twist of the experiment, she decided to see whether the argonaut could repair its shell using not its own substance but spare parts, so to speak. She broke off a small piece of an adult’s shell, but this time she placed in the tank next to it fragments from other shells. To her astonishment, the argonaut rushed to the pieces and began feeling them out with its arms, searching for the suitable puzzle shape, then applied it to its own shell and, once again waving the membranes over it, began the work of welding, struggling to orient the furrows of the borrowed piece parallel to those of its existing shell.
She spent hours bent over the cage, watching this staggering feat of multiple intelligences. Naturalists before her, working only with dead specimens and theoretical conjecture, had declared this impossible. But after repeating her experiment for five years and obtaining the same result over and over, Jeanne Villepreux-Power demonstrated that the octopus is indeed this planet’s patron saint of the possible.
Since women were excluded from the scientific establishment, unable to attend universities or present at learned societies, her research traveled into the world by proxy. The week photography was born in 1839, Sir Richard Owen — England’s preeminent scientists in the era before Charles Darwin, with whom she had been in regular correspondence throughout her experiments — read one of her letters and presented her findings before the London Zoological Society. Her research was a revelation. Soon, it was being published in English, French, and German, and circulated widely across Europe. By the end of her long life, Jeanne Villepreux-Power belonged to more than a dozen scientific societies. Her research not only illuminated an enduring mystery about the physiology and biology of a particular species of octopus, but, through her experiments on shell repair, laid the groundwork for the study of octopus intelligence, which has forever changed our understanding of consciousness itself.
Complement with some stunning drawings of octopuses from the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, created a quarter century after Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s death, then savor Marilyn Nelson’s magnificent poem “Octopus Empire.”
Published December 26, 2022