Today, meet an invisible early American scientist.
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.
American science was pretty
embryonic in 1831. We were a raw country, and smart
people were just learning to speak scientifically.
One of those people was 35-year-old Maria Martin.
Maria Martin was the younger sister of Harriet
Bachman, who, in turn, was the wife of the Rev.
John Bachman. Harriet suffered chronic tic
douloureux. Maria was surrogate mother and tutor to
her ailing sister's nine children. She taught them
piano; and she wrote out her brother-in-law's
The talented and tireless Maria was also a fine
artist. Within her strange shadow-life, she turned
her talents to recording nature. But even that bore
the face of service.
John Bachman was an important student of animal,
bird, and plant life. He needed an artist to record
his findings, and Maria Martin filled that need.
She observed plant and animal life. She helped
Bachman illustrate his papers.
In 1831 Bachman chanced to meet John James Audubon while Audubon
was in Charleston. It was a perfect match --
Bachman the scientist, Audubon
the artist. They began a friendship and
collaboration that lasted until Audubon died 20
Audubon saw that Maria Martin could do the one
thing he never really mastered. She could do the
plant and animal surroundings that so energized his
work. He'd worked with other artists in the past.
Now he worked with her. For twenty years she
anonymously completed his drawings.
In 1839 Audubon wanted to move from birds to
beasts. Bachman warned him that he didn't know
enough to do it alone. Audubon knew that was true.
He asked Bachman to collaborate. Together they
wrote The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North
America. John Bachman turned down the
presidency of South Carolina University to work on
that project. Maria pitched in to do her usual
large and silent portion of the task.
In 1846 the ailing Harriet Bachman died. Two years
later John (now 56 and growing blind) and Maria
(now 52) married. She devoted the rest of her
anonymous life to him. Afterward, publishers forgot
to include her name in books she'd illustrated.
They simply wrote her out of history.
Today, we've pretty well sorted out which of
Audubon's drawings she helped to create. Her other
work is scattered about. She did snake
illustrations for the first major American work on
herpetology. Some of that work is in the Charleston
We were young in 1831 -- still learning to be
scientists. Bachman and Audubon were major players.
So was Maria Martin, but we didn't yet know how to
make the women players visible -- in 1831.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Bannon, L.E., Handbook of Audubon
Prints. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co.,
Ford, A., John James Audubon: A
Biography. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.
Bonta, M.M., Women in the Field: America's
Pioneering Women Naturalists. College
Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1991,
Chapter 2, Maria Martin: Audubon's Sweetheart.
I am grateful to Jeffery Scoggins of Detering Book
Gallery, Houston, for flagging the Bonta source for
me -- for bringing this episode to my
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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