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  • Writer's pictureVivienne Boucherat

BLOG 57: ‘A WOMAN’S PLACE’ (Part 1)

The world is conspiring to teach me something about women via books, podcasts and radio!

Since I wrote last month’s blog about the wonderful book ‘The Story of Art Without Men’ –

I keep hearing about incredible women in all fields of human endeavour that, again, I had never heard of! I am making a list – and it’s getting long, so I am going to start sharing it.

Many of these women were way ahead of their time in their chosen fields but often had to fight to be taken seriously, gain access to education and hands-on experience or to obtain their rightful acceptance and due recognition.

My focus this month is on a trio of women who studied and researched the natural world. Their work seems to automatically straddle the sciences and the arts. This is just a tiny glimpse into the achievements they made in their fascinating and complex lives.

I will start with a woman who I read about in that same book - Katy Hessel’s ‘The Story of Art Without Men’ - Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). German born, she was a naturalist, entomologist and scientific artist.

She described and illustrated life cycles of nearly 200 insects – she engraved and etched her numerous exquisite illustrations and had books published. In 1699 she travelled to Suriname with one of her daughters - this voyage is a whole story in itself – but after 2 years she had to return after contracting an illness (probably malaria). In 1705 she published a book ‘Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium’ - a masterpiece, printed in both Latin and Dutch, detailing the natural world of Suriname.

Though famous in her own lifetime, after her death her work was largely forgotten until the 1970’s when she started to get some recognition. 300 years after her death, in 2017, her masterpiece of a book was republished and she is now, finally, recognised as one of the founders of modern-day zoology. She has all sorts of butterflies, bugs, reptiles and plants named after her, even David Attenborough credits her with being amongst the most significant contributors to the field of entomology.

Moving on, I heard a radio-show guest talking about books by Rachel Carson (1907-1964). Rachel was born in Pennsylvania, USA, and was a marine biologist, conservationist and author. The books were called ‘The Sea Around Us’ ‘The Edge of the Sea’ and ‘Silent Spring’.

I have started reading one already.

Her life preceded our modern ability to explore the depths of the ocean and our diverse modern-day knowledge ranging from plate tectonics to microscopic sea-dwelling bacteria. However, she already understood the delicate balance of the relationship between sea and land. She was already seeing extinctions of entire species and predicted the negative impact we humans could/would have on the eco-systems of the oceans and land, noting both our arrogance and our disregard for nature. ‘Silent Spring’ detailed the danger of the pesticide DDT, sparking a government investigation which ultimately led to a ban on DDT in the USA – shortly followed by bans in other countries.

Her work is now credited with having a huge effect on the environmentalist movement.

Thirdly, a podcast referenced Asima Chatterjee (1917 - 2006). She was born in Calcutta, India, and as a youngster she became interested in the medicinal properties of plants.

Unusual for that era, she managed to pursue education to a very high level and, in 1944,

she became the first woman to get a doctorate in science from any Indian university.

Despite huge setbacks in her personal life she researched and developed medication which became hugely important in three medical fields - cancer, malaria and epilepsy. That took me back to my old nursing life!

In some way, all three of these inspired and inspiring women will have, directly or indirectly, affected all of our lives. I am sure some of you knew about at least one of them, I am happy to be catching up!

Watch out for more ‘girl power’ name-dropping blogs in the future.

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