Headstrong: Maria Sibylla Merian

Back in 6th grade I had a set of teachers that were a bit unconventional. They didn’t follow the same flow in curriculum as the other teachers; they trusted that their students would gain more of a grasp of the subjects if they got to be in control of it a little, or if they made things ‘hands-on’. This meant we did a lot of projects. In order to learn cost versus profit we hosted a fair for other students – we had to establish a good business model and attempt to make a profit off of the goods or services we provided. To apply our knowledge of statistics we made our own carnival games – we had to consider what were ‘good odds’. It really was an interesting learning experience. Looking back now I have to marvel at all the organization that ultimately went into all of these activities.

Anyways, I digress. One of my least favorite projects we had to do was to collect bugs. Seriously. We were just told to go out and find lots of different bugs, figure out what they were and pin them onto a board of styrofoam. Honestly, I hated going out and finding bugs and I really didn’t want to kill them… I remember it was quite the ordeal to get myself a bee – I was afraid it was going to know what I was up to and escape the net to sting me as payback. Even so, in the midst of this project I learned the lifecycle of a moth by finding it at different stages, I learned the difference between a stink bug and a potato bug and ultimately was proud of the work I did.

For this month’s science woman, I look back on this experience to understand what Maria found so fascinating and why she traveled thousands of miles to learn about new creatures.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717) studied bugs. At a young age she used the knowledge of watercolors her stepfather had taught her to paint the creatures she found. She took her bugs home and studied them closely as they went about their lives. She learned how they ate, how they spun cocoons and how they emerged. The stages of these creatures, from worm to cocoon to butterfly were not well understood during Maria’s life. Naturalists categorized them all as different species. At 32, Maria published her first book of illustrations, focused on metamorphosis. It was her close attention to the lives of these bugs that helped the community as a whole understand the life cycle as a whole. Her illustrations had incredible detail and gave the bugs context; painting them on leaves or rocks or winding their way around a stem.

Later in her life, inspired by the failed attempts by her religious community to set up a homestead in South America, Maria felt that her path should take her to Suriname regardless of the circumstances. She was excited to branch out from her typical collection sites like bridges and manicured gardens and move to a more exotic setting to discover new specimens. She intended to go for 5 years to study and collect all types of bugs within Suriname. However, she was forced to return home after only two years due to malaria and the heat. Even so, those years provided her with enough inspiration and new material to put together her greatest work The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname, complete with detailed colorful illustrations like she had done before. This book was the driving force of a surge of interest in entomology, inspiring scientists worldwide to look closer at the insects all around them.

3 thoughts on “Headstrong: Maria Sibylla Merian

  1. Such a woman of passion and commitment – very inspiring. I love her illustration! Even with the ability to photograph , I still love botanical and entomology illustrations 🦋

  2. Very cool. I was surprised to learn that in the 1600’s they did not yet understand the lifecycle of butterflies. She was clearly a talented artist.

  3. I’m so glad she liked bugs! I love her illustrations and can only imagine the many hours she studied those bugs .
    I wonder, did she have a husband or children? She made a wonderful contribution to the world with her studies and illustrations, but I hope she had time for a private life. Thanks again for Letting me glimpse a little into the lives of these Talented passionate women .

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