The secret botanical life of Beatrix Potter
By Rudolf Schmid, Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley
The dual fungal-algal (or blue-green bacterial) organismal nature of lichens was discovered in 1867 by a Swiss botanist, Simon Schwendener, and quickly accepted as truth by German botanists. The British, however, for a long time denied this relationship, one botanist (J. M. Crombie) even dismissing it as an "unnatural union between a captive Algal damsel and a tyrant Fungal master" (Gilpatrick 1972).
Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), the famous illustrator and author of children's books, notably The tale of Peter Rabbit (1901), during her childhood became deeply involved in painting fungi and lichens (see accompanying "bamboozled" article) and in this way started to make scientific observations on them. By 1894 she actually had good scientific evidence for the symbiotic nature of lichens. However, this idea and her other work on fungi was not readily accepted by the British botanists due to their prejudice against Schwendener's theory and substantial anti-feminism with regard to women in science. Eventually, with the help of her uncle Sir Harry E. Roscoe, a chemist knighted for his scientific work, Potter managed to get her work on fungal spores read (not published) by the Linnean Society. However, even here there were two ironies: The paper was read by a man, because women were not allowed at meetings of the Society, and it was read on, of all dates, April 1st 1897. Potter withdrew her paper from publication because she wanted to do further research on fungi and lichens. However, frustrated with plant biology, Potter abandoned the infamous botany for her famous bunny.
Gilpatrick, N. 1972. The secret life of Beatrix Potter. Nat. Hist. 81(10): 38-41, 88, 90, 92-97, 109.See Bamboozled by botany, Beatrix bypasses bigoted biology, begins babying bountiful bunnies: OR Beatrix Potter [1866-1943] as a mycologist: The period before Peter Rabbit and friends article for many more references.
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Last revised: November 2002