The Victorian era (1837 – 1901) brought on a pervasive enthusiasm for science and natural history that was vastly inaccessible to women, except for a few female scientists whose contributions were considered ‘amateur’ simply on the basis of gender. While most of us are familiar with Beatrix Potter’s (1866 – 1943) infamous tale of naughty little Peter Rabbit, it actually turns out that Potter was a trailblazing businesswoman with a reverence for science and the natural world!
In her early twenties, the beloved children’s author developed a keen interest for mycology, the scientific study of fungi. Her passion for drawing and painting mushrooms extended beyond an aesthetic to include teaching herself the proper technique for botanical drawings, and collecting various specimen for microscopic observation.
Her later introduction to renowned mycologist, Charles McIntosh, advanced and encouraged a fascination with how mushrooms reproduce – a genetic and biochemical process that was poorly understood at the time.
When it came time to present her theories and empirical findings to the once exclusively male Linnean Society of London, Potter’s ideas were dismissed as unworthy and unimportant. She channeled this rejection by self-publishing her first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit which illustrated realistic plants and animals native to the landscape in which she collected her mushroom specimen. Selling out before the commercial copy was printed, Potter went on to become a successful author and artist and used the royalties from her books to purchase Hill Top Farm.
At a time when women had limited access to education, and the natural world was one of plunder rather than preservation, we applaud Potter for her creative evolution and far-sightedness in environmental stewardship. To this day, her beautiful illustrations are still studied and consulted for scientific accuracy worldwide.
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