The butterfly woman

The butterfly woman

Florencia Campetella, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, on Maria Sibylla Merian - 17th century entomologist, artist, naturalist and proto-ecologist

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt in 1647 as the daughter of Matthaeus Merian, an engraver and publisher, and Johanna Sibylla Heim. After the death of Merian’s father, when she was three years old, her mother married the renowned still-life painter Jacob Marrel. Her stepfather taught Merian the art of flower painting and encouraged her interest in collecting live insects. From the age of thirteen, she kept and raised silkworms. She was fascinated how caterpillars metamorphosed into butterflies and moths and created detailed drawings to illustrate the life cycle of insects.

After her marriage in 1665 and the subsequent birth of two daughters, she continued to paint and published three collection of engravings between 1675 and 1680, including Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung (The Caterpillar, Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food) depicting the metamorphosis of moths and butterflies.

After leaving her husband in 1685 and getting a divorce, Merian moved to Amsterdam in 1691. In June 1699, aged 52, she and her youngest daughter Dorothea Maria headed to the northwestern coast of South America, to the Dutch colony of Surinam, studying and recording the life cycles of local specimens. After two years, she was forced to cut her trip short and return to Amsterdam because she contracted malaria.

In 1705, she published what is regarded as the most seminal work of her career, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, in Dutch and Latin, including 60 illustrations depicting tropical insects, plants and animals in their full life cycle and their food plants. The book caused a sensation across Europe. Merian was one of the first to depict the life cycles of insects and their food plants as well as to focus on the interactions between the species that she studied, the basis of ecology.

Merian died in Amsterdam on January 13, 1717. Her reputation as botanical artist and expert on insects in the 18th century was such that Goethe praised Merian for her ability to move “between art and science, between nature observation and artistic intention”. In the 19th century she was largely dismissed as a mere producer of flower water colours. In recent years, her reputation is rightly being restored.

Ms Campetella, what fascinates you about Maria Sibylla Merian? Are there any aspects of her life and work that you strike you as particularly remarkable?

At the age of 52, Merian travelled to Surinam with her daughter to study tropical flora and fauna, essentially embarking on a field excursion at a time when field excursions did not yet exist as such. This illuminated copper-engraving is from the book of illustrations that she published after her return, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, which caused a sensation on publication. 

What fascinates me the most about Maria Sibylla Merian is that she was able to combine art and science in such a brilliant and accurate way. She knew very early in her life that she wanted to draw and explore how insects lived, and she was determined to do so.

For the first fifty years of her life, she focused mainly on European insects. She observed and documented hundreds of insects living in Europe, from caterpillars to spiders. She became well known for her work, collectors and art dealers would frequently come to her and show her insect dead specimens for her to observe. And she would always reply that they were not enough, that she would like to see how these insects lived, on what they were feeding, how they died; what their natural habitat was like.

So at the age of fifty two years, Merian decided that it was time to go and see how these tropical insects were living. This was in 1699, and she embarked on a two-year field trip to Surinam – at a time when field trips didn’t exist. It must have taken her a lot of courage. Her determination is admirable. It was in Surinam that she watched insects in their natural habitat, meticulously recorded their morphology, made observations about their nutritional habits, natural predators and behaviour. Thanks to her detailed drawings and annotations, we know these insects today, some of which might even be extinct, Merian’s record being the only record that we have of them.

What were the prevailing gender roles during Merian’s time?

Merian got married at an early age and had two daughters. But in 1685, she left her husband and moved to the Netherlands. This was at the time of the Dutch Golden Age.

At that time women were supposed to be in charge of the domestic sphere and household affairs. But there are written records that some women in the Netherlands had their own businesses and earned money in Merian’s time, indicating that perhaps this is one of the reasons why she decided to settle there.

How did she manage to persevere and be successful despite the many restrictions on women at the time?

She was able to keep working because she was able to fund her own work. She financed the printing of her own books, which she would later sell. She also sold her drawings and engravings. I believe this financial freedom is what allowed her to go after her interests and ideas.

And people were very interested in buying her work. After her death, the Russian Tsar Peter the Great instructed an agent to buy her remaining works.

How important are Merian’s contributions to entomology /botany today?

Merian was the first to depict the life cycles of insects and their ecological connections. This image shows a tabrouba tree with a stag beetle. [From Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate XLVIII]

Merian observed nature very carefully and she tried to portray it as she saw it with her own eyes and in as much detail as her hands allowed her - without decorative objects or embellishments, which was the tradition at the time. These careful and patient observations made her the first to report on the interactions among insects of the same and different taxa, and among insects and their host plants. We can find countless examples of this in her book Metamorphosis. She was the first ever to show the interaction between species, food chains, and the struggle for survival in nature. And how environment affects development and behaviour. This, which we today define as the field of ecology, didn’t exist at the time. She basically founded it.

It is even more incredible when we consider that those were times when people, including scientists, believed in spontaneous generation. For some, caterpillars emerged from water, and butterflies from decayed caterpillars. As ridiculous as it sounds today, that was the belief at the time. Merian, on the other hand, took great care on making a distinction between male and female insects, and portraying the eggs from which the caterpillars emerged. She was one of the first to provide evidence against spontaneous generation.  

Obviously, much has improved for women in science since the 17th /18th Century. In your view and your experience, what do you regard as changes that have happened in terms of women in science? 

Much has improved and much more needs to be improved and changed. When we see the topography of change across the world, we still see many areas that were not affected by this change. There are still countries where women in science are not well regarded. So we have to put things into context when we speak about change, because some parts of the world remain unaltered.

One of the greatest changes is that now women can also become scientists. We are able to study at universities, do PhDs and and carry out research.

Nevertheless, despite many positive changes, the number of women in STEM disciplines is still lower than the number of men in these fields. What do see as contributing factors to this discrepancy? (For example, continuing cultural bias, gender stereotyping, 'math and science are not for women'; lack of female role models etc.) 

'Merian built a bridge between art and science, between entomology and botany, between insects and behaviour': illuminated copper engraving from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate XLV. 1705.

I think that this issue is part of a much bigger problem, which is that the way we do science today remains in some aspects very archaic. I see an increasing need to discuss and re-evaluate how scientific institutions are organised. We inherited a structure, a working system, from older times and just kept going with it, making some small adjustments on the way. The gender gap is just one of the symptoms of it.  You also don’t see many people from a low-income families studying science in comparison to other disciplines. Why is that? We need to question ourselves and society: is this the best system that we can imagine?

There have been efforts in the past few years to promote women in science, but sometimes these efforts fall short. They need to be more integral and coherent. It’s not only about equality, but fairness. For instance, we often see in job applications that female applicants will have priority under equal merit. But at the same time employer often don’t offer maternity or parental leave, no childcare facilities at work, no days of absence due to child sickness. Science becomes this fierce competition , where many excellent researchers fall on the wayside. Unfortunately many or most of those left behind are female. The question is: do we want to keep promoting this model or do we want to find more inclusive ways of doing science?

What do you think is necessary in order for more girls to get involved in STEM disciplines, so that more women will pick up and remain in STEM professions?

Firstly, we need to give girls the chance to decide about their own future, even at a young age, they should be able to decide if they want to play with a doll or disassemble a computer. Don’t make assumptions. Let them discover science, let them find a way to follow  their curiosity, perhaps even in ways we never thought of. I think it is also important to listen to younger generations. Instead of telling them what science and being a scientist is, we should ask them what they want science and scientists to be. 

With the advancement of new technologies and social networks, children are more aware of their possibilities. We need to make science accessible and appealing to them and we need to increase diversity among scientists. It should be clear that science is for everyone and that anyone can become a scientist. Science is not only for the “crazy” scientists, or the girl that wears combat boots or khaki pants, science is also for the girl that wants to wear a pink dress and high heels.

Do you consider mentor programs useful?

I do consider them very useful, but because they are time demanding and usually based on volunteer work, many people and scientists are not reached by them.

What role models do you see for women in science?

I usually go for contemporary role models, who remind me that being a woman and a scientist is possible, and from whose life experiences I can learn and feel inspired: Jane Goodall, Leslie Vosshall, and my own supervisor, Silke Sachse.

What advice would you give young women considering science as a career path?

My advice would be that you should remain true to yourself. You don’t need to fulfil any stereotype to become a scientist. Don’t let anyone convince you that you can’t do it.

Is there anything else you should like to say about Merian which you couldn’t fit into the questions above?

One of the things I appreciate the most about Merian’s work is that she was able to build bridges where there were previously none. She built a bridge between art and science, between entomology and botany, between insects and behaviour.


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