Today, we meet the mother of entomology. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The middle 1600s didn't
welcome women as intellectuals, but historian
Lhonda Schiebinger tells how German women found an
odd doorway into the life of the mind. It was not a
door into the academies. Rather it was one that led
into the trades. German women did a great deal in
arts and textiles, for example. That was the door
Maria Sibylla Merian passed through to become the
first great entomologist.
Merian was born into a family of artists in 1647
and trained as an artist herself. When she was 18,
she married another artist. They both set up
businesses -- he as a painter, and she as a seller
of painted silks and other fabrics.
That seems far from entomology -- the study of
insects. But where, after all, does silk come from?
Merian had started painting insects as a girl. Now
she made a study of silk-spinning caterpillars. She
traced the life cycles of all sorts of moths and
butterflies. When she was 22, she published her
first book: Wonderful Metamorphosis and
Special Nourishment of Caterpillars. Two
years later, she published a second book -- A
Study of New Flowers. That one stretched the
art of printing to new limits.
Finally, in her late 30's, Merian left her husband
and joined a religious community. Some reports
suggest that his "shameful vices" drove her to
declare independence. In any case, she spent
several years with this group baking, weaving,
printing, and studying.
Finally, when she was 52, she moved to Suriname on
the north coast of South America. Her group ran a
mission there, and she went to study the insects of
the new world. Out of that two-year study she wrote
her third book: Metamorphosis of Suriname
Insects. It was much more than a beautiful
picture book, though it was certainly that. It also
had a lot to say about native anthropology in the
region as well.
Admiration for Maria Merian's groundbreaking work
grew during the rest of her life, and through the
1700s. Her daughters were also artists. One worked
in the court of Peter the Great. Her grand-daughter
married the great mathematician Leonhard Euler in
Merian's freedom of the mind didn't catch up with
her until the 19th century. She'd said too much
about the human side of Suriname natives in her
last book. That offended 19th-century colonialism.
Critics finally emerged. They used minor errors in
her taxonomies to attack her for defending South
American natives against colonial mistreatment. But
no matter. Recent years have seen a revival of her
works. Some of her drawings were just being
published for the first time in the 1970s.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds