Beatrix Potter: Renowned Author, Illustrator, and Mycologist
Dale DeBakcsy from Women You Should Know tells us about the famous author, Beatrix Potter, and her works as a woman scientist making discoveries in the mycology field during the 19th century.
- A brief biography of Beatrix Potter’s life in 19th century England
- How writers research deceased figures
- The development of Potter’s affinity for mushrooms and how she did research with her limited resources
- Women in science in the 19th and 20th century
- The unlikely lives of natural scientists in the late 19th century
- Beatrix’s mycological discoveries: observing lichen’s symbiotic nature, rendering scientifically accurate illustrations of mushrooms, the existence of mycelium underground, spore germination, mycoparasitism, and the roles of fungi in ecosystem ecology
Meet Dale DeBakcsy from Women You Should Know
Beatrix Potter — famous for her beloved books and elegant illustration, notably The Tale of Peter Rabbit — was a 19th-century artist and a mycologist. Her contributions to mycology were significant, having observed and documented phenomena that were previously speculated or unknown. Despite the misogyny that kept her work from scientific recognition, Potter persevered in her research. Well, today’s show is a spotlight on Potter’s mycophilia. We are joined by Dale DeBakcsy who is a knowledgeable writer for Women You Should Know, with comprehensive knowledge of Potter’s life and love for fungi.
Dale DeBakcsy is the writer and artist of the Women In Science and Cartoon History of Humanism columns, and has, since 2007, co-written the webcomic Frederick the Great: A Most Lamentable Comedy with Geoffrey Schaeffer. He is also a regular contributor to The Freethinker, Philosophy Now, Free Inquiry, and Skeptical Inquirer. He studied Intellectual History at Stanford and UC Berkeley before becoming a Teacher of Mathematics and Drawer of Historical Frippery.
Writing for Women You Should Know
Dale shares that researching and writing about dead people is challenging. It takes a lot of effort to produce a piece with only a little bit of material on the woman in the spotlight. At the time of the podcast recording, he was researching someone that seemed to take “four hours of research for every… three lines of actual text.”
Luckily, Beatrix Potter kept a diary that documented most of her life. The Journal of Beatrix Potter: 1881 to 1897 was surprisingly written in all code. However, it has since been decoded and is now available for purchase — see the Podcast Show Notes below! So, writing about her was much easier for Dale. As we know, Beatrix was a famous author and had a lot of written material for him to flip through. This allowed him to create his article, “Mushrooms, Fossils, And A Pen To Draw Them With: Beatrix Potter, Naturalist.”
Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) Was a Mycologist
Image from https://www.finedininglovers.com/article/females-food-history-forgot-beatrix-potter ©finediningloversArtwork
Overall, Beatrix Potter was a badass. She is known all over the world for her children’s books such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, and many more titles. Not only did she write amazing and world-renowned books, but she was an amazing illustrator and mycologist too. Amazingly, she made incredible discoveries within the mycological field. But she had to face prominent male scientists of the 19th century to share her findings with the botany community in London.
When she was growing up, Potter was a secluded individual. This lifestyle laid the foundation for her in-depth studies. Her family was well-off, so she didn’t have to worry about practical matters. This provided her a lot of free time that she spent studying nature, which is how Beatrix became a full-fledged naturalist. She would bring home mushroom species from the field and paint them before they shriveled up. Her work in mycology originally started with illustrations, which later embellished her work as a writer.
Over time, her love for fungi grew profoundly as she found herself conducting microscopic experiments in her kitchen. She studied “spores and germination of mushrooms and fungi and lichen.” Respectively, this was all happening during the 1800s in England when mushroom enthusiasts and amateur naturalists began to populate.
About Beatrix’s Work in Mycology
Sadly, Beatrix didn’t have direct access to botanical communities being a woman, but her connections and network provided for her nonetheless. She had an intense desire to learn about mushrooms. Eventually, she met a man named Charles McIntosh who was an expert on British fungi. After they met, Potter began foraging for rare varieties and even started growing them at her home. This activity led to her advanced mycological studies as a female scientist.
As any scientist does, Beatrix began to ask herself questions. “What happens to mushrooms over the winter?” Her curiosity sparked wonder within the different realms of mycology such as germination. She proceeded to conduct experiments in her kitchen as she had access to Petri dishes, sterile slides, and microscope technology. Her findings were unlike any other research being conducted in England at the time.
Within her experimental processes, she “[concluded] that lichen was a fungus-algae hybrid,” this idea is also known as The Hybrid Theory of Lichen, which was later proposed by someone else (1). Further, she attempted to establish the relations between algae and its active part in lichen. She also provided groundwork that highlights the significance of mycelium within the mushroom’s lifecycle. Moreover, she pretty much discovered that “tremella was a mycoparasite.” As Lera from Mushroom Revival brings up, if Beatrix’s work was conducted in today’s society, it would take a lot of research and effort to produce such findings.
Her Mycological Journey as a 19th Century Woman
Image from https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-the-uk/the-secret-life-of-beatrix-potter
Over time, Potter produced an elaborate collection of her mycological findings and wanted to share them. As a woman of high society, she had a connection to the 19th-century scientific world. Her relative, Sir Henry Roscoe, was her opportunity to present her research to the Kew Gardens, which was the highest botanical authority in England at the time. She desired to be a student researcher for the institution. Sadly, her presentation was received rudely and they replied to her with an unpleasant letter that Roscoe never let her read.
Roscoe didn’t give up on her though. Beatrix didn’t quit either. She displayed a “remarkable… inner fortitude.” So, they both continued to work by producing a legitimate scientific paper called On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, which was presented to The Linnean Society by a man named George Massee. The paper was read by a male because Beatrix was a woman and was not allowed to join the organization. Again, she was rejected and her paper was returned to her. To this day it has not been found. Her “observations, illustrations, and theories” as a mycologist were dismissed because she was a woman even though later down the line her work was validated (1).
But Beatrix was a very strong woman. She wrote in her diary about her experiences with the societies and brushed it all off by expressing simply that they weren’t kind about it. However, she never wrote another scientific paper again. Yet, her efforts were valuable. Potter’s ambitious mycological activity with male scientists in the 19th century as a young single woman was courageous. She was dealing with “the most powerful men in English botany.” And she fought diligently for her work.
Beatrix’s Other Amazing and Connected Works
Image from https://mymodernmet.com/beatrix-potter-art/
By fate, Potter’s scientific research was not done in vain. After rustling with the botanical societies in England, she began writing The Tale of Peter Rabbit in a letter to a young boy five years later. If it weren’t for her harsh rejections from Kew Gardens and The Linnean Society, she might’ve never become the world-famous author she is. She showed both organizations “what she's capable of,” says Dale. Ultimately, men scientists drove her away from science and to her fame as an author.
Potter started as a naturalist enthusiast in the forests near her home, then she took to illustrating her collected items with the painting medium. She began to seriously paint mushrooms in 1887. Her mushroom illustrations eventually were used in scientific texts as they were “recognized for their accuracy and their detail.” Beatrix loved mushrooms and the natural world. In her lifetime, she completed more than 350 gorgeous fungi watercolor paintings. It can easily be seen that the flora, fauna, and funga of the earth inspired her illustrations for her books that she lovingly created.
Image from Dale’s Article: “Mushrooms, Fossils, And A Pen To Draw Them With: Beatrix Potter, Naturalist:” https://womenyoushouldknow.net/beatrix-potter-naturalist/
Today, the famous children’s book author has a brilliant story within the realms of science, literature, as well as nature conservation. She continues to inspire people around the world. For more information on the life of beautiful Beatrix Potter listen to the podcast and check out the resources below!
Podcast Show Notes & Works Cited
- Dale’s Article: “Mushrooms, Fossils, And A Pen To Draw Them With: Beatrix Potter, Naturalist:” https://womenyoushouldknow.net/beatrix-potter-naturalist/
- Women You Should Know: https://womenyoushouldknow.net/
- The book that inspired Dale to write about Beatrix Potter: Over the Hills and Far Away: The Life of Beatrix Potter by Matthew Dennison: https://www.amazon.com/Over-Hills-Far-Away-Beatrix/dp/1681773503
- Book: The Journal of Beatrix Potter: 1881 to 1897 by Beatrix Potter: https://www.amazon.com/Journal-Beatrix-Potter-1881-1897/dp/0723236259
- Book: Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear: https://www.amazon.com/Beatrix-Potter-Nature-Linda-Lear/dp/1250094194
- Book: A Victorian Naturalist: Beatrix Potter's Drawings from the Armitt Collection by Eileen Jay: https://www.amazon.com/Victorian-Naturalist-Beatrix-Drawings-Collection/dp/0723239908
- Beatrix Potter’s Les Champignons: https://www.anbg.gov.au/fungi/case-studies/beatrix-potter.html
- Brain Pickings: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/07/28/beatrix-potter-a-life-in-nature-botany-mycology-fungi/
- Kew Gardens: https://www.kew.org/read-and-watch/beatrix-potter-tales-from-the-archives
- The Linnean Society: “Beatrix Potter (1866–1943)” https://www.linnean.org/the-society/history-of-science/beatrix-potter-the-tale-of-the-linnean-society
- Mystic Books: https://mysticbooks.org/author/beatrix-potter
- “Books by Beatrix Potter:” https://www.thriftbooks.com/a/beatrix-potter/204752/
Dale’s article: https://womenyoushouldknow.net/beatrix-potter-naturalist/
Beatrix Potter’s Les Champignons: https://www.anbg.gov.au/fungi/case-studies/beatrix-potter.html
Brain Pickings: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/07/28/beatrix-potter-a-life-in-nature-botany-mycology-fungi/
Women You Should Know: https://womenyoushouldknow.net/
Welcome back everyone to another episode of the mushroom revival podcast. We are unbelievably obsessed with healing power of mushrooms. We are so excited to bridge the gap between You are beautiful, inspiring listeners and the wonderful, wacky interesting world of fungi and mushrooms we bring on guests and experts from all around the world to geek out with us to go on a journey into that world of mushrooms. So strap in, tune in and Shrum in to another episode.
Today's mycological highlight is on Beatrix Potter, a renowned author and lesser known mycologist from the 19th century. And we are welcoming Dale tabaxi, who has extensive knowledge on pediatrics and her myco philia. Welcome, Dale.
Alright, thanks for having me.
So before we get super nerdy with Beatrix, can you share a bit more about yourself?
Ah, well, yeah, it's so for for a while now, I've been writing the the Women in Science column at women, you should know. So every other week, there's a new figure. We've been doing this since 2013. And Beatrix Potter is one that had always been something I had always been meaning to do, but had always found ways to, to, you know, distract myself away from until one day by chance. I was in a bookstore and charming volume, called Over the hills and far away, which is a biography of Beatrix Potter was just sitting there looking at me, somewhat accusatory Lee, I think, but, Dale, why haven't you done me yet. And so I picked it up and it was just charming and and the work was that she had did was so surprisingly, you know, beyond that, that you would expect because of course, the 19th century featured a number of amateur mushroom enthusiasts, naturalist enthusiasts, it was the sort of high watermark for his sort of amateur science. And I was just so taken back by by the scale of what she was able to do, given her background, her life that that the the time was up, and it was it was time to get down and finally cover her. And plus, I've been looking for a long time to have an excuse to do a mycologist because they're always just really interesting. I've covered a few on the Women in Science column now. And they always just have a just neat life story. As it turns out, there's just something that drives you to that study, which just produces interesting life stories. So that was that spent some time going into her backstory, there's a lot of great stuff about her and her work that made it a lot easier than than a lot of the stories that I have to do on women in science where they didn't write about themselves at all and other people didn't write about them either. And you just have to look in the shadows for them. Beatrix Potter is not as much in the shadows, thanks, of course, to her books. So that made it easier. And then
And unfortunately, she couldn't make it on the show today. She has since left her body for quite a while. But she has an unbelievable badass and I'm really really excited to highlight her. I and thanks for coming on the show too, to honor her and you know, tell the world about her history her work and kind of highlight why she is such a badass for not only the mycology community, but the just I mean, she's an incredible author as well and and naturalist and human beings. So I'm excited to to get into it.
And the last thing you said it was something I wanted to ask you was how exactly you conduct research on like dead people, and especially people who I mean, luckily Beatrix seemed to have kept a diary and was documenting her life. But could you talk a bit about a bit about how you went about this research where you looked and kind of the more obscure paths and archives that you had to unearth.
Yeah, well, I mean, luckily, it is Beatrix Potter, who is, you know, one of the world's most beloved figures, ever. She is somebody who's the flow of her words is in the DNA of every person who had a childhood to speak of. Right. So being able to do somebody who is so beloved and is much, much more well documented, like I said, then than most of the figures, I have to do most of the most of the figures that I have, you know, I have to I have to deal with scraps and just little pieces of information here and there, and stitch them together as, as best I can. In between, you know, my regular job of teaching high school, which has its own time demands, we'll say, so, but but Potter, you get a few good things. One is, of course, that she is so universally Beloved, and was since 19 101, when when Peter Rabbit first comes out, that people have never stopped being interested in her and writing about her. The other one, which is of course, the the huge help is that she kept this diary granted, it was in code from 1881 to 1997. And, you know, it was written in code, which is the absolute bane of her biographers. But luckily, somebody went through and actually decoded it. And it's available. It's readily available in print. And we also have the wonderful work of Linda Lear, who wrote Beatrix Potter a life in nature, which is sort of the authoritative account of of Potter's life and her world in addition to that, and the world of sort of 19th century amateur naturalism. So all of those things together made my work a heck of a lot easier than it usually is. For other figures that I've had to do, you know, like, like cardi raper. Who I don't know if you've had a chance to talk with her and her work and mycology a lot more difficult to flag down. Thankfully, she wrote a memoir, but yeah, Potter. There was a lot going for me, like the figure that I'm doing right now. I you know, I would say it's four hours of research for every like three lines of actual and a text that I ended up getting to write so yeah, lucky on this one.
So most people know Beatrix Potter for her work, Peter Rabbit, which a lot of kids were read that book when they're a kid, or if they're your parents, you've read your kid that book and it's it's a really, really well known children's book and, and many other books as well that she wrote. And another aspect of her life, which is pretty major is that she was an avid mycologist, and an all around naturalist and a beautiful painter and illustrator of the natural world, and spent a lot of her studies on spores and germination of mushrooms and fungi and lichen. How How did she get fascinated into that world of mycology and mushrooms in the first place?
Yeah, that's that's an interesting question. And it's something that that ties into that world of 19th century science and the limitations on being a woman in the 19th century in in England. What you were encouraged to do and what you were more or less rigidly prevented from doing. And for for her, you know, she comes from a family her grandparents were were wealthy through producing Calico cloth. And so there was a decent amount of money in the family. Her parents didn't have to work. Her father loved photography, and he loved art and that's what he spent his time sort of devoted to. And he he shared his enthusiasm for that with with Beatrix Beatrix didn't go to school. She had a series of governesses which was, you know, common for her, you know, socio economic position at the time. And they they sort of gave her an education in languages. One of the big helps to her being a mycologist that later on was their knowledge of German because the Germans were doing much more advanced work than the English at the time. So that that helped her later studies immensely, but also lots and lots of training and art, which she was instantly revealed to have a particular ability for a particularly ability for showing realism, even in like Peter Rabbit or Jeremy Fisher, where, you know, we've got frogs in, you know, jackets, it's still like these incredibly beautiful detailed renderings of the frogs and the plants around them. And that helped because the, the artistic school that was popular at that time was was this pre-raphaelite artistic movement, which focused really a lot on light in detail, and just natural detail in all the background work and her family was was connected with some of the pre raphaelites artists and supported them. And so and she went to their studios and saw how did they produce these incredibly detailed, beautiful works. So she had that just natural instinct and access to people to help her along with that. But more than that, she just was an absolute nature fiend from from the start. So she had basically a private zoo, in her room that she and her younger brother would just find critters out in nature and kind of sneak them into the house. And then they just have them living up in their rooms. So there were, you know, mice and rabbits and bats, and you know, newts, and all this stuff, just living around. And then, you know, she treated them beautifully and loved them. But then when they died, she boiled them to get down to their skeletal structure. So she could draw the skeletal structure to and learn more about them. So she had this this intense naturalists, I from the start and desire to get into nature. And, and she also had the fact that there was nothing for her to do, beyond the roles of, you know, a daughter of a family, she wasn't expected to ever have a job, she wasn't expected to go to school to go to university. And that gives you a huge amount of time to fill. Which, you know, as all of us in COVID, time knows spending all of your time inside with your family gets to be a bit much so. So she would go out at every opportunity to flee the household to go into nature. And she noticed more and more especially as the you know, heads into her late teens, the world of of mushrooms is that they're just such strange objects out there, which they had been sort of primed to love, because she also lived in the high watermark of fairy literature. Right so this was these were these beautiful illustrated books filled with tales of fairies and mushrooms and you know, in this this interrelated world, so every time that she saw a mushroom even when she was a little bit older, it carried with it that sort of childhood enthusiasm for this mystical world. And, and I think that's what got her started painting them. She, which you know, she starts in about 1887 when she is 21. But she doesn't get real serious about it until 1892 when she meets a very interesting person who inspires her to go into it much more deeply.
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One thing I'm so interested in about the more like intimate research that Beatrix was doing was how she was able to get so scientific doing things like germinating spores and observing the symbiosis between algae and fungi and lichen and, and I did some research and the petri plate wasn't even invented until a couple years before she really dived into the science. So I'm so curious about what tools she had and was able to implement in the late 1800s to observe these fungi. Can you speak to these intimate details?
Yeah, um, and you're right, is that, you know, her her career with this kind of breaks into two parts. There's the part. Well, I'll say three parts. I'm not going to go back and forward on that number. But anyway, so there's the part where she's primarily just painting things let more or less under systematically, where she comes across something and one of her her drives, or one of her sprawls throughout nature. And it's it's beautiful and interesting and different. And she decides she has to paint it because she has this instinct to just paint things that are different. And then in 1892, she well, doesn't meet because she'd known him for a while he was the the postman of the the potter, his old summer house up in Dell GIS, in in Scotland. So he used to be this postmaster, who walked it's estimated 200,000 miles over the course of his career. And that allowed him just rambling through delivering posts all over the Scottish countryside. And as he was doing that, it allowed him to see my newly the nature of Scotland and he became known as one of the great amateur mycologists of the 19th century, an expert on Scottish mushrooms and fungi. And he just happened to be the postman for her her little town that she would Sumerian. And in 1892, she got a chance to talk with him, as she's a little bit older, he had happened to move to a place where she had access to him. And they overcame the problem, which was, he was from a different social class than her. Right, which meant that he couldn't just go to him, because that would have been unheard of, for a daughter of a respectable household to visit, even this incredibly esteemed mycologist because he was an ex postman. And that was that was unheard of. So that there was a very elaborate plan to get them to meet each other. And he started. He saw how enthusiastic but sort of systematic she was. And she really wanted to learn more at this point, about the more detailed work of taxonomy of myco illogical taxonomy, which he was an expert in preparations and of creating scientific illustrations that would be useful for the scientific community rather than just merely beautiful. But that also illustrated parts of the the structure of mushrooms, that would be useful. So he taught her that in in the in so this is 1892, that she's doing that. And then she starts getting curious about, like, we like you were talking about the germination of spores. And she's asking herself this question. You know, a great scientist just sort of asked themselves questions, things that they wonder about, is what happens to mushrooms over the winter? Right, what is the structure that allows them to come back over the winter and she went to the Natural History Museum, and they were sort of appalled it. Because that wasn't the thing that that the researchers were really interested in at the time in England, so she decided she's going to do it. She's going to make a study of it herself. And she's lucky because she is related to an eminent British naturalist Sir Henry Roscoe, and he puts her in touch with a chemist named Joseph Lunt, and that chemists teaches her how to prepare sterile slides. And, and teaches her about the nutrient formulas that they use for different types. Types of, I don't want to say vegetable, but different types of, I guess, non animal life. And, and so it's at that point where she's able to now she's got these different nutrient sort of recipes from this eminent chemist, she's able to prepare more sterile slides so that she can fend off questions about contamination, right, a lot of people were skeptical about our work because they say you're just doing this in your kitchen, which was correct enough. And, you know, all these things that you're seeing this germination effects that you're seeing, and later on her work with, that, that alligator and and fungi have a symbiotic relationship and lichens, all that's just artifacts of of contamination. And so what helped her prepare those slides so she could document that. And then when she's getting ready to write this final paper after basically the people at the, the, the queue, you know, that the primary botanical powerhouse of the 19th century, the the Kew Gardens, they were just to be colorful about it, they were just raving dicks to her when when she came to them with her ideas. And so Henry Roscoe took great exception to this. No relative of Henry Roscoe is going to be treated this way, we're going to sit down, we're going to create a, you know, absolutely rigorous, you know, balls to the wall rigor paper about your findings, and I'm going to get it presented at the linnaean Society, and people are going to know that you're doing legitimate work. And at that time, she gets access to some petri dishes as well. If you look at some of her later drawings, they have petri dishes. So she did evolve over time, her techniques, but yeah, at first it was it was very, you know, I found this thing, I'm going to pick it and bring it into my kitchen and hope that I can draw it before it Tribbles too much. Later on, it is petri dishes, sterile slides, all the stuff that 19th century science could reasonably expect you to do.
And one of those, you know, developments was the theory of fungal hybridization, which I read on Wikipedia. I don't know how that's not so much of a credible source. But, you know, I did some very basic research on even plant hybridization. And it it really wasn't even around for that long. And only two researchers were really theorizing it practicing plant hybridization. And so the idea of even hybridization, really, in practice was was very, very new. So for her to put out that theory of fungal hybridization is is huge. Although, you know, many different levels of hybridization, but, but yeah, it goes beyond just painting, it's, it's, it's really fascinating how she can have these jewel worlds of being one of the world's best authors, and also, you know, an incredible mycologist that is doing, you know, leading edge research that is pushing this industry forward.
You know, it's such a, it was a very courageous thing for her to take up you know, the, the theories about fungal hybridization and the the ideas of, you know, fungus, algae, hybrids and symbiotic hybrids at the time, because this was basically to invite ridicule, for her to come out and talk about these things and to talk about because, you know, most people when they heard symbiosis and hybridization, they thought of this Swedish mycologist from 1867 1869, depending on where you look, who who proposed dual organism theories, and those theories were picked up in Germany. So if you look at like Tibet, Heinrich Anton de Berry, Albert Frank melchiorre, Troy, but some of those figures in mid 19th century, German writings, they picked up on this and said, yeah, this seems valid, but England, by and large, mocked these ideas that that to be labeled. A spending arrest, spending, there was the the Swede who came up with these ideas was basically to be labeled a crank. And, you know, she walked into the queue and like I say, walking into Kew Gardens, it is the authority in Britain at the time for anything pertaining to botanical matters. And she walks in and sees that, you know, she says, Look, I've done these things, I've done these terminations, I've looked at the the like, and I've done some experiments to show, you know, how the chlorophyll component contributes to the fungal component. Um, and, and she's basically just treated as that's nice, um, leave us alone, by enlarge, that we don't have the letter when she when she presented her findings to the director of the queue. But apparently, it was so rude that her her Uncle Henry Roscoe just refused to let her see it. He was like, it is so insulting, that I'm not going to let you see it. But we're going to get together, we're going to work your ideas into this paper. So yeah, it's it's not that her ideas were totally, totally new. I think if they were totally new, that would have been one level of courage. The second level of courage is to know that ideas are hated, to know that your experiments show that those ideas are still good, and need to be taken seriously. And then to fight for those ideas. As you know, a single woman, amateur naturalist in the face of the most powerful man in English botany, that was that was something else and to have that level of self confidence to carry on that fight. And she's so blogged about it, like in her in her writings in her in her diaries, she's just like, Oh, you know, I went over there, you know, to, to the most powerful men in botany, and, you know, I told him how it was. And, and, you know, they were rude about it. But she doesn't, you know, it's just so much confidence. And then to bounce back and present a paper to the linnaean Society about the thing that you have just been so dismissed about at the queue. It's, it's a remarkable display of, of just inner fortitude, from Beatrix Potter. And you wouldn't think it, you know, reading Jeremy Fisher, or, you know, the are Jemima puddleduck, that the person who's writing these very soft, you know, beautiful little stories, was able to stand up to the most powerful organizations and in 19th century British naturalism, it's, it's pretty incredible.
Yeah, I think that just augments her badass ness, because it's one thing to have done that, but then to have done it in her era, where misogyny was very real. And I'm pleased that she was able to get her her work right at the linnaean Society, although she wasn't allowed to read it herself, or even attend to the meeting, which is just so silly. But is there anything else you can speak to for what she has to say about women in science and insights? You had to that whole reality?
Yeah, I mean, so so much. This is probably have to reel me back. This is sort of the the consuming interest of my life, is talking about the evolution of women's place in in scientific research. Now, it's the last eight years of my life, I've been devoted to this. So I will probably have too much to say, but I will try and hit the highlights, which is, or the low lights as the as the case may be, is that basically, it's interesting in when you have women in science, and what they're what they're allowed to study at any given time, is really socially coded in strange ways. So for instance, in America, right, we have astronomy is a big thing. Because here letting women study biology in the 19th century was considered dangerous. Because if you study biology, then you might study Darwin, and if you study Darwin, then you might start doubting religion. And if you start doubting religion, you might start doubting the structure of marriage and the the, the structures of life as you've had them presented to you. So we're going to steer you away from life sciences, we're going to steer you toward astronomy, which basically at that time was just sort of looking at the night sky and making images of what you see, or we're gonna steer you towards mathematics, which is even more abstract and safe that doesn't have any, like social realizations that you might make. So, so here, you know, we have a lot of, you know, there's this astronomical kind of powerhouse that comes out in American, the history of women in science, in Britain and France, you have these positive manias amateur mania is for naturalism. So you would have, for example, some of the most popular selling books at the time, were books about family microscope experiments, where basically, you know, the family would all go out and they'd look for stuff and they bring it back and you'd look at it under the microscope, and you'd look on this book. And you'd argue amongst yourselves about Oh, what what species is this? What is it? Can you see this structure, can't you which sounds unspeakably charming, like as as a family pursuit that we're going to have an evening dedicated to, you know, microscopy, and to, to just amateur naturalism is something incredible, but women were were very much a part of that world. It was, it was considered to be sort of a good compromise that got you out in the air, it got you a little bit of exercise, which was starting to be recognized as an important thing. That, you know, a lot of the problems that that women were having, health wise was a result of being almost immobile. For huge stretches of their existence, this idea of being too weak to be allowed to take up any kind of vigorous physical activity just kind of produced this vicious cycle of immobility creates health problems, which creates more mobility, mobility, which creates more health problems. That that was starting to people were starting to see around that in the late 19th century, and to see the virtue of allowing, you know, your daughters to go out into nature and and, you know, collect stuff and paint stuff, it was considered to be this sort of intersection of artistic insight with sort of an appreciation of the natural order, which many people thought would bring people closer to God rather than further away. So it was deemed to be sort of safe in that regard. As long as you did it sort of in a gentle womanly way. There were figures like, like Margaret Fontaine, who became this international, a really interesting figure, she was an entomologist, who became known for going traveling the entire world over in search for rare insects, and just, you know, writing these travel logs of her, it's her very intense experiences in parts of the continent of the world that have never been explored before, by, you know, British tourists, and French tourists. Looking for a remarkable insect. That was a bit too much for a lot of people. But the idea of going into the countryside and doing this, that that was accepted, where it ran up against problems was when you tried to gain access to the established community. And there's, there's always this turnover, that when a field gets professionalized, when it gets to the point that you can make money doing it, that's when the women tend to get shoved out of the profession. So the first, like I said, before, the first American astronomer, was a woman. As soon as she started being able to make money for her astronomical surveys, then her positions at universities and the number of women's students that she had just dropped dramatically, because men saw Oh, we can make money at this elbow, and tent they just rushed in. And same thing with ecology ecology, was founded here by Ellen swallow, who did most of the foundational studies for the chemical analysis of air water, sanitation in the home heating in the home, sanitation, in prisons, nutrition in prisons, like that we should actually study these things and know what's going into food and air and water and all this stuff. Those were done by her, basically, on her own. And then of course, she starts making professions out of these things and gets shoved into a period of enforced silence, where she's basically not allowed to talk at all about her findings for a year, while male professors start taking over the positions that she had before. And you see this in naturalism as well, that in the 19th century, there is this thriving world of amateur naturalists. So Beatrix Potter loves mycology, she also loves geology, and she loves paleontology. These are kind of the three big natural influences of her life. And as long as she's painting them, and making illustrations, people are fine. But it's once she starts claiming scientific knowledge that's different than the received scientific knowledge. That she gets into trouble. And you see this over and over and over in the history of women in science. If you look at Cecilia Payne compostion, she was the one who said that stars are made up overwhelmingly of hydrogen. Her studies overwhelmingly showed that happened. And when she brings it to officials, they're like, No, you're wrong, you're going to have to recant your findings, that, that, that that confrontation with authority just does not go well. Depending on what country you're in, well into the 20th century, and some would say it continues to be so. Um, but yeah, there's a lot of issues going into it, that that you can go thus far and no farther is is really the predominant theme. Even in even in medicine, again, I'm talking too much about this, I'm sorry. In medicine, like you had the the amateur community the the sort of this very strong tradition of women doctors in in towns. And that's a very strong tradition in like Germany into the 17th and 18th centuries, and then they're just cut out of the picture. As soon as the medical profession professionalize itself, their first move is to make sure that women can't get licenses to do the stuff that they've been doing for centuries and centuries and centuries. So that's that's a long answer to what what position she was in and kind of the overall structure of women in science, she was very lucky to have important relatives in natural science. That's how she gets her linnaean society, paper presented. But they basically present it, they put it on the table for people to look at and then send it back to her. We don't actually have the paper today. That's That's how much it disappeared. It was great that she was able to do it. But basically, this was a favor to Henry Rosco, by and large to Sir Henry Roscoe. And once they had fulfilled that, they ignored it. In spite of the fact that almost all of its findings, as we know, were validated later.
And I thought it was funny, I think was it five years later that she after that event, she wrote Peter Rabbit and became this, you know, world renowned author, and I thought that was just what funny timing to go through that experience of not being able to present and then, you know, writing one of the most world famous books ever to kind of show them you know, what she's capable of, and then she's, she's done these beautiful, like, over 350 beautiful watercolors of fungi, mushroom spores, like in all these fungal depictions. Are there any cases of her weaving those characters in her books and and kind of weaving in fungi in her narrative center illustrations?
Oh, that's, that's a that's a good question. There are, you do see some kind of, you know, out in the corners of things, there's not like an entire fungus focused book, but her illustrations do get picked up in the 20th century, as these sort of authoritative illustrations that a century later, they get picked up and used in actual scientific texts. I think 67 of her illustrations were used in a collection about British British fungi. So her her works are eventually used for science, and they're recognized for their accuracy and their detail. Yeah, it's funny that it's actually really close that that there was this fateful course of three days in 1893. We're on September 2, sorry, September 3, she finds this ultra ultra rare fungus. This stromlo Mikey's stroebel A caves, a fungus that had basically the first time it had ever been seen was 60 years before and she is able to capture it and render it and produce kind of these these first full, detailed accounts of it. That's September 3. The next day, September 4, she sits down to write to her to know more, this young child, and she writes them a picture letter. The day after she's discovered this incredible rediscover this incredibly rare fungus. And the start of it begins with you know the famous line. I don't know what to write to you. So I shall tell you a story about four little girls. Rabbits whose names were Flopsy, mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. Um, and this, it's this full story that she's written for this kid just to make them happy. And it's basically the story of Peter Rabbit. And the day after that, she realizes that he just had a new, a new baby brother, who recently came into the world and that he should have a storybook to. So she sits down and writes him a story of this little frog, who decides he's going to go fishing. And that frogs name is Jeremy Fisher. So within three days, she's had this big mycological discovery, which he's documented for the first time, invents Peter Rabbit. And then the very next day invents Jeremy Fisher, just as sort of something casual, just like, Oh, well, I'm just gonna send this to these kids. And to make them a little bit happier. And then, as you said, in 1901 1901, that Peter Rabbit story becomes, well, sort of a literary juggernaut, that that it inspires a huge industry of not only the books, but also merchandising, she's also kind of a pioneer in terms of literary merchandising, where you could get Peter Rabbit stuff. And, and she took the that the money that she got from that, and used it to buy land that she thought was in danger of getting sort of, you know, run through by railroads, or like, you know, basically, you know, our current idea of, you know, paving over paradise and putting up a parking lot. Right, she was making sure to that she took her money that she earned from these these characters, and, and used it to preserve as much of the old countryside as she could the places where she had done her tromping. And she just was terribly worried that the nature that she enjoyed, and it was so open to her and so opened her mind was, was in danger of being lost, that we were going to rush to too quickly into the modern age, and just tear up all of our natural legacy, before we realized what we were doing. So she was also this sort of ecological, you know, environmental pioneer as well. That's very rare for the 19th century. For people to be thinking that far ahead of like, what would happen if we kept doing this? right that's that's something you start picking up like when you start getting super highways in the 1950s. But for somebody but you'd be thinking that in 1897 You know, when when it's it's nowhere near that dangerous? That's that's something special. So yeah. But that is what what people liked about them was not only these, these animals, but the worlds in which they live that sir Jeremy Fisher's pond, has, you know, realistic botanical features in it, that that Mr. McGregor's garden, same thing, all of the the plant life there is, is rendered quite lovingly. And yeah, there there are, you do get the odd mushroom here and there. I can't say off the top of my head, unfortunately, which books they ran if people want to rush to their, their home copies of Beatrix Potter to find them. But you know, it's not a wasted night to just sit and read through them all until you find them because they are just beautiful. So just do it. I mean, it doesn't matter that you're an adult. These are some of the most beautiful, beautifully illustrated things ever. So even if you're not reading it for the words, which are a whole different topic, the art is worth it. This is the golden age of children's illustration. And she is one of the reigning titans of that. So spending time with her is never time wasted.
Yeah, her art is gorgeous. I was very impressed with the accuracy of these renderings. It'd be great to read through Peter Rabbit and Jeremy Fisher and if you do find a mushroom, I bet it's not an LBM or a little brown mushroom as mycology is caught it probably potentially something more interesting and taxonomically correct.
Yeah, that's interesting. Seeing that side of the world that yeah, that you have that is that the the standard mushroom mushroom number seven. That goes into the the illustrations. Yeah. It would be it would be you know, I'll challenge anybody. If anybody finds a mushroom in a Beatrix Potter and is able to identify it, you know, send a tweet out to me. I'll retweet it for the world to see that. That we've got our gumshoes out there. We've got our investigators. Yes. Let's have a little mushroom treasure hunt.
So I am continuously impressed with Beatrix is independent exploration and sort of independently discerning what's happening on a psychological scale. So of course, the symbiosis of lichen was proposed by a different naturalist. But she was able to kind of take those findings into her own lab and agree with it or or find supporting evidence. And then there's the spore germination. And she also kind of supported the idea that there's mycelium underground. And this is where the mushrooms are coming from. And I even read another interesting anecdote and another book. And she had basically determined that, or potentially, she determined that tremella was a myco parasite. And this is some next level mycology. I mean, even my colleges today are they got to pour in some research and resources to make these sorts of discoveries. Can you add to this laundry list of things that she's discovered in the mycological world?
Yeah, I mean, and I think you make a very good point, which is just how long it took people to to verify some of the things that she was working on, like her work with lichen. Some of the aspects on it, that she was kind of struggling to establish, scientists were still struggling to establish a century later. That's just how tricky they are. And that she's doing this with a 19th century microscope that she bought, with her basically pocket money that she gets from a from selling the odd part of with, like a holiday, she was like a Hallmark card, Illustrator for a while to earn some pocket money is pretty astonishing. One of the things that that I really am impressed with her that I also don't think gets quite enough press is kind of her her big scale thinking. So you know, we get these these really tiny things, you know, where she's working with the mycelium, which, you know, had only been really found in any way in 1863 was the first discovery of it. So she does this really small scale stuff. But then she also does this big scale thinking which anticipates stuff that you see in forest science. So she starts wondering about how is it that what's the correlation between the types of molds that you see in a forest, the state that they're in, and the types of trees that are around it? Right, so she's starting to think about interconnections between different parts of the ecosystem, which is, again, a very different way of thinking than than what had been raining because up to this point. People are so you know, after after the resistance of being resisting Darwin and Darwinism by the late 19th century, everybody's on board. And that's all they're interested in doing is establishing, okay, where did this feature come from? So they are, you know, myopically focused on this individual and their, their ancestral line of traits, this idea of looking at it from my bigger system perspective of, I'm not as concerned about, you know, where this feature came from, evolutionarily. I'm concerned with how this organism, this organism and this organism, which come from totally different parts of the tree of life, how do they mutually support each other? Right? Why is it that when I see these trees, this mold looks this way? I'm thinking on that scale is really I think, ahead of its time, by a good half a century. And yeah, I think she should get more credit for thinking on that scale, not being so shoved into our microscope, that she couldn't step back and think about this ecosystem sort of approach to the natural world.
And, and like you said, you know, was the driving force why she bought land and put it in conservation, which, you know, like you touched upon was kind of unheard of. And it wasn't the societal thought at that time, that there were superhighways, and you know, it just wasn't as big of a threat at that time. Now, we think more about it and we see we have access to internet, the internet, we can see forest fires, we can see oil spills, we can see, you know, super cities popping up but at that time, you know to do that was really she was really ahead of her time, in many different ways. And I like what you touched upon. Part of of having that that bigger ecosystem awareness that symbiotic awareness is really important. And I think that's a good touchstone for our next question, I'm going to give a little spin on it for what we usually do. So we ask all of our guests, we ask all of our guests on our show this question, this is a little of an interesting arrangement, because you're speaking on behalf of someone. So I'm going to phrase the question like this, if, if mushrooms had the microphone, and could say one thing to the whole human race, what what do you think Beatrix Potter would would would say on behalf of the fungi?
Yeah. That that's a great question. And, and her her insight that this is the problem is that, that I'm trying to speak for one of the greatest wordsmiths of the English language. So I will I will state right up front that that whatever I say is five orders of magnitude less charming. And then what Beatrix Potter I was just thinking about giving a voice to a fungus. And and it would be something just so he double bench ventriloquism right here. Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's just sort of I, I've been inhabiting the body. It's like a body snatcher. So, um, you know, but, um, but I think she would say, you know, something along the lines of do find us. As, I don't want to say the word magical, I think because that's too tawdry for Beatrix Potter. Right? It's how she felt. And it's how we feel. But you know, do find us as otherworldly as we are. Right give yourself that freedom. Because that that's the the overriding problem that we we have become too used to mushrooms, we have allowed ourselves to get too familiar with them in many ways where we sort of think of them as a supermarket good. And, and that's sort of where we less, you know, let it lie, but you know, for organisms that have a cycle of life, so different than the the bounds of what we are accustomed to, and our normal assumptions about what life is and life works, there is a deep strangeness there. That is something that will always pay off, the deeper that you look at it. So don't let yourself Take them in as as to worldly, that there is something very otherworldly about how this particular life form has found a way to exist. So she would say it in a way which is so charming, I can't even consider it, consider it. But you know, do not let us become common would be the closest I could think Do not let us become common. I love that. Thanks for sharing your expertise on Beatrix, I was very happy to have found the article you wrote and then was able to contact you through women you should know which was a whole new journalistic site that I didn't know of until I found that article and I'm excited to read more. Well, thank you so much for having me on. I will talk about Beatrix Potter any day of the week. And all y'all out there. Find yourself Jeremy Fisher it's my favorite. Get some Jeremy Fisher read it tonight. You won't be sorry.
Yeah, I'll have links to the article he wrote women you should know a few other things and then of course all of Beatrix his books and where you can read them.
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