Let’s celebrate 150 years of Beatrix Potter: author, scientist and fungus-lover

Her tales have enriched the lives of countless children. But arguably Potters greatest talent was for science – despite the scepticism of Kews botanists

Tomorrow marks the 150 th anniversary of the birth of revered youngsters writer and illustrator, Beatrix Potter, celebrated worldwide for such beloved literary characters as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-duck. In this celebration of her literary and artistic legacy, it is easy to forget she was a keen natural scientist.

Influenced by family vacations in Scotland, Potter was fascinated by the natural environment from a young age. Encouraged to follow their own interests, she explored the outdoors with sketchbook and camera, sharpening her skills as an artist, by drawing and sketching her school room pets: mouse, rabbits and hedgehogs. Led first by her imagination, she developed a broad interest in the natural sciences: particularly archaeology, entomology and mycology, producing accurate watercolour drawings of unusual fossils, fungi, and archaeological artefacts.

Potters uncle, Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe FRS, an eminent nineteenth-century chemist, recognised her artistic talent and encouraged her scientific interests. By the 1890 s, Potters skills in mycology depicted Roscoes attention when he learned she had successfully germinated spores of a class of fungi, and had ideas on how they reproduced. He use his scientific connections with botanists at Kews Royal Botanic Gardens to gain a student card for his niece and to introduce her to Kew botanists interested in mycology.

Although Potter had good reason to think that her success might transgress some new ground, the botanists at Kew were sceptical. One Kew scientist, George Massee, however, was sufficiently interested in Potters drawings, promoting her to continue experimenting. Although the director of Kew, William Thistleton-Dyer refused to accept Potters hypothesis or her drawings much attention both because she was an amateur and a female, Roscoe fostered his niece to write up her investigations and offer her drawings in a newspaper to the Linnean Society.

Letter from Beatrix Potter to William Thiselton-Dyer, 3 December 1896. Photograph: Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

In 1897, Potter is moving forward her newspaper, which Massee presented to the Linnean Society, since women could not be members or attend a meeting. Her newspaper, On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae, was not devoted much notification and she quickly receded it, recognising that her samples were likely polluted. Sadly, her newspaper had now been been lost, so we can only speculate on what Potter actually concluded.

Potter, who never had any ambition to become a professional mycologist, turned her attention to writing and showing tales and greetings cards. In 1901, she privately published a picture letter she had written to a young child, A Tale of Peter Rabbit. Frederick Warne& Co. bought and published the letter in colour the following year. Potters lasting contribution to art and narrative was thereafter assured.

Until quite recently, Potters accomplishments and her experimentations in natural science went unrecognised. Upon her death in 1943, Potter left hundreds of her mycological drawings and paints tothe Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside, where she and her husband had been active members. Today, they are valued not only for their beauty and accuracy, but also for the assistance they offer modern mycologists in identifying a variety of fungi.

In 1997, the Linnean Society issued a posthumous apology to Potter , noting the sexism displayed in the handled in her research and the current policy toward the contributions of women.

This important episode in Beatrix Potters life, and the assistance she received from her famous uncle, has not been forgotten. Henry Roscoes influence on Potter lives on in one of her most charming and early drawings , A Dream of Toasted Cheese, celebrating the 1899 publication of Roscoes textbook First Step in Chemistry . Now in private hands, the illustration is rarely seen in public.

With reference to this little volume, Roscoe wrote in 1906, I here insert a reproduction of a coloured depict by my niece, Miss Beatrix Potter, as original as it is humorous, which was presented to me by the artist on publication of the work.

London-born, Henry Roscoe, whose family roots were in Liverpool, studied at University College London, before moving to Heidelberg, Germany, where he worked under Robert Bunsen, discoverer of the new-fangled apparatus that inspired Potters drawing. Together, using magnesium as a light source, Roscoe and Bunsen reputedly carried out the first flashlight photography in 1864. Their research laid the foundations of comparative photochemistry.

The English chemist, who married Beatrix Potters aunt, Lucy Potter, was a pioneer in photography and also the first to procure the element vanadium in its pure kind. His writings and public lectures spread an appreciation of the national importance of chemistry, while his academic career as prof of chemistry at Owens College, Manchester and later as vice-chancellor of the University of London, insured him promote the value of scientific and technical education. Roscoe also served as president of the Chemical Society( now the Royal Society of Chemistry ).

Ultimately, mycologys loss was a gain for childrens literature. As we celebrate Potters anniversary lets remember not only her remarkable artistic and story-telling skills but also her curiosity about the natural environment that is the hallmark of every great scientist.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *