Maria Sibylla Merian was only 13 when she learned to trust her eyes. The young German girl had been intrigued by the silkworms at the town silk mill: where did they come from? In her time, the 17th century, insects were considered “beasts of the devil,” perhaps because of their antennae. Prevailing wisdom of the age was that flies, moths and butterflies arose spontaneously from mud or rotting produce.
Maria, through simple observation, discovered the truth.
Born in 1645, in an era when female curiosity was a risky prospect, she followed her interest in spite of strict gender roles and superstitions about witchcraft. She kept silkworms in the attic of the family home, feeding them mulberry leaves. She tended and watched these charges in secret. Eventually her patience was rewarded when she first witnessed the spinning of each cocoon, then its splitting open to reveal a moth. She watched as the moths paired in flight. She found the pale eggs and watched them darken and finally split to reveal a new caterpillar.
That was the beginning of Maria Sibylla Merian’s lifelong study of butterflies and moths—and their metamorphoses. She began collecting cocoons, observing and painting what emerged. Her stepfather, a painter, gave her an artistic foundation and encouraged her to use her eyes.
Eventually, in midlife, she would become perhaps the first person to cross the sea for purely scientific purposes, as she and her daughter sailed to South America to collect and study specimens there. Unlike other naturalists of her day, she was not sponsored by a commercial enterprise or corporation.
She published several works in her lifetime and is recognized as a major contributor to the field of entomology because of her detailed and artful illustrations.
In Women’s History Month, we celebrate the contributions of Maria Merian and all who faced down gender barriers to contribute in their fields.
Source: Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science, by Jeannine Atkins