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  • It's hard to imagine but just 300 years ago,

  • it was widely believed that insects spontaneously spawned

  • from dust, mud or rotten meat.

  • Their reproduction was felt to be so strange and frightening,

  • they were known as beasts of the devil.

  • It's partly thanks to the work of naturalist and illustrator,

  • Maria Sibylla Merian,

  • that we can now find this idea amusing.

  • Today Merian is celebrated as one of the world's first ecologists.

  • She is admired by Sir David Attenborough,

  • who described her as one of the most significant contributors

  • to entomology, the study of insects.

  • But she faced many challenges in her journey to educate the world,

  • not least because of her sex.

  • Born into a family of artists in Frankfurt in 1647,

  • Merian spent her childhood collecting insects

  • and drawing them in remarkable detail.

  • In 1665, she married and soon had two daughters.

  • In an age where a woman's place was thought to be in the home,

  • she defied convention,

  • publishing her first book, New Book of Flowers, in 1675.

  • Merian was one of the first to describe

  • the metamorphosis of insects in detail,

  • declaring that all moths and butterflies

  • hatch from eggs after reproduction and do not just magically appear.

  • In 1699, Merian, by then divorced,

  • sold her belongings and set sail to Suriname in South America

  • with one of her daughters, Dorothea.

  • She's thought to be the first woman to travel in the name of science.

  • After a long sea journey, they set off into the jungle,

  • battling through thick clouds of black flies

  • that inflicted skin-ripping bites - but it was worth it.

  • The jungles of Suriname were a naturalists' paradise,

  • teeming with species that would later be documented

  • in Merian's groundbreaking work,

  • 'The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname', published in 1705.

  • Its stunning illustrations depicted stages of development of Suriname's

  • veracious caterpillars and vibrant butterflies,

  • as well as many other creatures from this exotic habitat.

  • Uniquely for the time, she also portrayed insects surrounded

  • by the plants they relied on,

  • revealing their relationship to the wider ecosystem.

  • She was the first to show that the change from caterpillar to butterfly

  • depended on a number of plants.

  • Though she had planned to stay longer,

  • Merian's adventure was cut short by illness

  • and after two years she returned to Amsterdam.

  • Given the challenges of working in a humid and unfamiliar environment,

  • it is remarkable how many species she was able to observe

  • and catalogue in that time.

  • Her writing is also notable for acknowledging the mistreatment

  • of enslaved indigenous and African people

  • and their contribution to her research.

  • She wrote in her description of the peacock flower,

  • 'The Indians, who are not treated well by their Dutch masters,

  • use the seeds to abort their children,

  • so that they will not become slaves like themselves.'

  • Merian suffered a stroke in 1715 that left her unable to work.

  • She died two years later, aged 69.

  • However, Merian's legacy has endured.

  • To date, at least six plants, nine butterflies, two bugs,

  • a spider and a lizard, have been named after her.

  • Despite being over 300 years old, her work on the biodiversity

  • of Suriname is still valued by scientists

  • and could show us how some species may adapt to climate change.

It's hard to imagine but just 300 years ago,

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Maria Sibylla Merian: The woman who changed science forever | BBC Ideas

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    Summer posted on 2022/03/06
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