The scientific contributions and botanical art of Beatrix Potter

September 8, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

All the world knows Beatrix Potter as the author of the Peter Rabbit stories.

Some of the world knows that Potter also illustrated those stories. Probably even fewer people know that Potter was a scientist and a scientific artist, and her specialty was mushrooms.

As Maria Popova of BrainPickings writes:

. . . no aspect of Potter’s kaleidoscopic genius is more fascinating than her vastly underappreciated contribution to science and natural history, which comes to life in Linda Lear’s altogether magnificent Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature . . . — by far the best book on Potter and one of the finest biographies ever written . . . The little-known scientific contributions and mushroom drawings of “Peter Rabbit” creator Beatrix Potter

As a 30-year-old woman, Potter tried to break through the Victorian-age social norms that precluded a female from being considered adequate as a scientist. She even wrote a scientific paper on mushrooms but in 1897 was refused the opportunity to present it to London’s Linnean Society, the chief gathering of Victorian botanists, on the grounds that her ideas could not measure up to a male’s observations. Her drawings were dismissed out of hand.

Subsequent generations of scientists recognized the error and unfairness when, a century later, the Linnean Society issued an apology.

But Potter, undaunted, moved on. Four years later, in 1901, she self-published a book about four little rabbits. The next year, that book had morphed into The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which became a huge and enduring commercial success. She continued her writing and artwork, growing more famous and wealthy.

Her exquisite botanical drawings still exist, fortunately, and you can see some of them here, or take a look at Anne Stevenson Hobbs’ book The Art of Beatrix Potter.

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