Stunning Seaweed from Victorian Marine Biologist Margaret Gatty
January 15, 2020 10:35 AM   Subscribe

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 during Victorian times.

It was a time when women were formally excluded from science, but found one particularly opportune loophole: algae-hunting. Children’s book author Margaret Gatty (June 3, 1809–October 4, 1873) took this popular hobby 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, Gatty published British Sea-Weeds (public domain) — a stunningly illustrated field guide to local algae, fourteen years in the making, detailing 200 specimens in two volumes. Besides the eight-six beautiful hand-drawn artworks (done in this instance by an unknown artist), 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?
[All text lightly edited for cohesion from the original article--which should be read in full!--at BrainPickings.]
posted by youarenothere (3 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This is really gorgeous - her illustrations and their colour groupings are mesmerising. And kind of appetising?
posted by carbide at 5:53 PM on January 15

Gatty's Parables from Nature are an important example of early science writing for children, which was a genre strongly, although not entirely, identified with women--e.g., Jane Marcet and Arabella Buckley.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:34 PM on January 15

Totally missed this. Yay. Thanks for sharing this with the community. Such beautiful illustrations.
posted by Fizz at 12:58 PM on January 19

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