Thursday, June 21, 2007

Beatrix Potter's "jog trot" through science


Yellow Grisette (Amanita crocea) and Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) Beatrix Potter, 1897 / The National Trust

In a different time, Beatrix Potter -- who drew these fungi -- might have gone on to a career as a scientist, and she might be known today as a great mycologist. Instead, she is known as a great children's book author and illustrator -- and as one of England's most important environmental preservationists, one who was a strong advocate for preservation in her time and who deeded her land holdings to the National Trust.

She loved to draw fungi, and was led by that path to study them more systematically. She became a formidable scientific illustrator at a time when that was a vital and highly prized skill. Encouraged by her uncle, a well-known chemist of the time, she studied fungi through both observation and careful experimentation. She was one of the first people in England to confirm the heretical foreign notion (which originated with the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener) that lichens consist of two different organisms in a symbiotic relationship, a fungus and an alga. But her overtures were rejected by the Victorian scientific establishment of the time. Sexism was a big reason. Being seen as an amateur at a time the sciences were rapidly professionalizing and becoming dependent on formal credentials was another. She was also on the wrong side of a paradigm shift. The option of a scientific career effectively foreclosed, she turned in another direction. She was effectively erased from the pages of British science for the better part of a century, until her drawings were belatedly used to illustrate a guide to fungi in 1967.

Potter was born the year after the Civil War ended, and she died in 1943 during World War II. Spanning such different eras, perhaps it's not surprising that her scientific accomplishments were denied recognition not once, but twice -- and that the second time was in the 21st century, in the film Miss Potter, starring Renée Zellweger.
The true story of the woman who created some of the most beloved characters in children's literature comes to the screen in this drama leavened with elements of comedy and romance. Beatrix Potter (Renée Zellweger) is a imaginative but gently eccentric woman living in the socially and intellectually confining circumstances of Victorian England.
The movie just totally ignores Beatrix Potter's first career and focuses on her second career. This time, I think the problem was not so much sexism as Hollywoodism -- also evidenced in the choice of director, Chris Noonan, who is known for directing the talking pig film, Babe. They needed a talking animal director, no doubt, because in the movie's conception, Beatrix Potter has cute, cloying conversations with imaginary, animated animals. In short, the filmmakers came up with a typical, stereotyped Hollywood plot: charming girl talks to animals, writes kiddie books, gets guy, loses guy, buys farm to compensate, gets another guy and lives happily ever after. Why spoil that with a bunch of messy fungi?

Outside of Hollywood, there's a growing awareness of Potter's other career in science. Former Boston Globe science columnist Chet Raymo blogged about her last year.
From babyhood, Beatrix Potter had been interested in the workings of nature. She collected passionately and sketched everything. She wrote: "I do not remember a time when I did not try to invent pictures and make for myself a fairyland amongst the wild flowers, the animals, fungi, mosses, woods and streams, and all the thousand objects of the countryside."

[...]

With fewer barriers to her advancement, it is easy to imagine that Potter might have become a professional botanist, or, combining her skills of careful observation and literary expression, a successful naturalist and nature writer. But it was not to be; in the age of John Muir and John Burroughs, nature writing too was an almost exclusively male preserve, jealously guarded.

A glance at the Norton Anthology of Nature Writing tells the story. During the years spanning Potter's life, women authors are sparsely represented, in spite of the best efforts of the editors to be inclusive. Not until the latter part of the Anthology -- well into the 20th century -- is it chock-full of women naturalists, including such wonderful contemporary writers as Ann Zwinger, Sue Hubbell, and Terry Tempest Williams.
Linda Lear's recent biography Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature provides the sort of complex, rounded view of Potter's life that the movie did not. She goes into detail about her scientific career, as well as her life as a writer, artist and preservationist. She reminds us that Potter had the bad luck to live at a transitional time.
Beatrix attempted to obtain a hearing for her scientific observations at a time wen the line of demarcation between amateur and professional scientist was newly drawn and jealously defended. She was not singled out for mistreatment. Her experience was the norm, not the exception.
And then there was the fact that she advocated a theory about lichens -- those organisms that blanket rocks the world over -- that was at odds with the dominant paradigm of British botanists at the time. The conflict pitted the dominant late 19th century Darwinian position that held evolution was all about competition against the heretical view that there was a place for cooperation, and Potter was one of the heretics.

Tom Wakeford considers this conflict so important that it's the subject of the first chapter, titled "Beatrix versus the Botanists," of his book, Liaisons of Life: From Hornworts to Hippos -- How the Unassuming Microbe has Driven Evolution. The chapter (click here) makes fascinating reading.
Had Beatrix Potter been allowed to follow her vocation, Peter Rabbit and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle might never have been born. Instead of writing and illustrating stories loved by children all over the globe, she would have been writing groundbreaking articles for scientific journals. Beatrix's ambitions were thwarted not only because she was a young woman attempting to contribute to a profession almost entirely dominated by Victorian men, but also because she was a symbiologist—a proponent of the dissident theory that some organisms were composed of not one but two different beings. Her story has become a legend of youthful scientific inquiry stifled by pomposity and prejudice, and of a heresy that was later vindicated.
Wakeford writes that these conflicts reached the breaking point in 1896, when she was snubbed by both the Linnaean Society and by the director of the Royal Botanic gardens in Kew.
After what she describes as a "storm in a teakettle" she left Kew, never to enter the world of professional biology again. She disliked what she sarcastically called the "grown-up world" of science. Two venerated institutions, which had embraced the theory of evolution by natural selection forty years earlier, were now shattering the aspirations of one of Darwin's most able successors.

Beatrix was dispirited that the excitement of the last few years, and the great hopes of being able to make a significant contribution to science, had so cruelly and abruptly been snuffed out. She knew her passion for lichens and fungi would now only lead to further public ridicule, both for herself and for her favorite uncle. One by one, she laid her treasured folios of watercolors aside. It would be 1967 before William Findlay, president of the British Mycology Society, returned them to their rightful place as outstanding scientific studies of nature, when he used them to illustrate his field guide to the fungi and lichens of the British Isles.

Despite their initially vicious reception, the ideas of Schwendener and Potter were accepted by most biologists within a few decades. Lichens were shown to be true dual entities, the association of a bacterium or an alga with a fungus. In 1929, H. G. Wells and Julian Huxley remarked in The Science of Life that "a lichen is no more a single organism than a dairy farm is a single organism." In this encyclopedic textbook, the authors describe a diverse range of similar alliances that had been recorded in a wide variety of plants, animals, and fungi. Far from being primitive taxonomic obscurities, irrelevant to the rest of evolution, lichens could be, they suggested, the dual ancestor common to all plants. More recently, Schwendenerism has not only been rehabilitated, but has provided the key to understanding the role of intimate associations in the evolution of our plant-dominated landscapes. Arriving with their radical networking manifesto 400 million years ago, fungi are the alliance-building kingdom that built the power supply for almost all terrestrial life.
Potter's ramble through the science of botany was brief but intense, spanning only about five years from the early to the late 1890s, from the time she was 26 to the time she was 31. A century later, she received a belated apology from the Linnaean Society for the way she had been treated.
Having received posthumously an official apology from the Linnaean Society for its treatment of her, at a meeting held in her honor in 1997, exactly one hundred years after it had barred her from speaking, Beatrix Potter is now beginning to receive the recognition she so richly deserves.
Although Beatrix Potter experienced great disappointments in her life, she excelled at picking herself up and moving on. She was acutely aware of how much of what is important in life is in the quotidian day-to-day moments between the major events. Linda Lear reflects on this near the end of her book.
Many years earlier she had written about the course of human life as she sorted through old bundles of family letters -- records of illness and death. "They give a distorted impression," she thought. "The milestones are all tombstones! But the record of the cheerful jog trot round of life between them is not kept." Although she had always been somewhat ambivalent about how she wished to be remembered, Beatrix Potter had left abundant testament of her unique "jog trot."

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

is it true that Beatrix had her Uncle read her paper to the Royal Society?

Madison Guy said...

I believe so. The rules of the Royal Society at the time did not permit women to present their work to the Royal Society.