“I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.” In 1893, when Beatrix Potter sent these words, and the picture story that accompanies them, down in a letter written to a sick child, she was not an internationally known author, or universally loved illustrator – she was a profoundly isolated individual enchanted primarily by the study of nature and the cataloguing of its fine structures. Frustrated by her parents’ pervasive grip on her life, and convinced that her destiny lay with her pen, her brush, and her discerning eye, she spent the 1890s engaged not in the production of children’s books, but in a deep study of mushrooms and their mechanisms of germination before the callousness of a few powerfully placed British scientists thrust her from her first passion, and placed her firmly on the road that led to Peter Rabbit, Jeremy Fisher, and immortality.
Potter’s childhood was the desperate product of Victorianism gone mad. Born in 1866 to parents who inherited their wealth from textile magnates and who consequently felt no need to do anything with their lives beyond observing the expected proprieties in a uniform succession of days terminating only upon death, Beatrix Potter was kept on the third floor of the dreary family home with only her governess for companionship until her brother was born some six years later. Prohibited from interaction with other children, young Beatrix threw herself into a series of solitary passions that saved her from the fate of so many other closeted daughters of inherited Victorian wealth.
The first of those passions centered around drawing and animals. She and her brother kept a menagerie of living creatures in their third floor living space, animals purchased or captured in secret and conveyed stealthily up the staircase to avoid parental notice. In this manner they collected lizards, bats, rabbits, snakes, hedgehogs, rats, and mice, which Beatrix learned to care for and which, upon death, she learned to boil to preserve their skeletons for study. While alive, she observed them closely, drawing them from every angle in every natural position, chasing the pre-Raphaelite ideal of perfectly realized natural verisimilitude.
Her interest in art was the one great positive inheritance she received from her father. Together they would visit art galleries and he would share his opinions as an art connoisseur and amateur photographer, and she would scrutinize the depictions of plants and animals. John Everett Millais, one of the founding figures of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was a friend of the family, and his early work, which blended an attention to background details with scenes of historical or literary whimsy, left a deep impression on Beatrix. Her own style similarly mixed her burgeoning naturalist observational skills with a grounded fancy learned from a governess who deeply believed in fairies and honed in the great echo chamber of the third floor, where animals had to stand in for the humans she was barred from knowing.
Kept from school, she received as education a smattering of foreign languages, some history, and a good deal of artistic instruction, but for the rest she was left to her own, and in the yawning absence of structured curriculum or running obligations to peers, she was free to follow deeply the things she wanted to know. Beginning with an investigation of the wildlife available to her during vacations to the country, as time went on Beatrix developed first a love of fossil collecting and categorizing, and finally a decade-long fixation on mushrooms over the course of the 1890s that was to be the reigning preoccupation of her twenties and which might well have been the focus of her career had academic exclusionism not wedged itself between her and her nascent research.
The sprawling visual diversity of fungi caught Beatrix’s eye for color and detail and, as often happened in her life, what began as an artistic interest became a practical program to learn as much as possible about this strange not-plant, not-animal form of life. Encouraged by Charles McIntosh, the local postman at one of her family’s summer retreats who also happened to be a well-known expert on British fungal types, she began hunting rare varieties in earnest and growing dozens of different species at home, studying their development and attempting to determine the nature of their distinct, complicated life cycle.
Over the course of 1895 and 1896 Potter slowly transformed herself from illustrator and collector to experimentalist as, in the kitchen of her home, she attempted to germinate fungus from spores, and in the process came to the conclusion that lichen was a fungus-algae hybrid. The germination of fungal spores was something nobody else in Britain was attempting at the time, and the hybrid theory of lichen was downright heretical, but Potter’s repeated experiments with different fungal types, all documented through microscopic analysis and careful slide preparation, all pointed consistently to the same conclusions. She highlighted the importance of the underground mycelium as the bridge between released spores and eventual fruiting body, and attempted to establish photosynthetic continuity in the life cycle of lichens as a means of demonstrating the algal contribution to the hybrid organism.
Armed with her observations, illustrations, and theories, she sought admission as a student researcher to the Kew Gardens, a royal institution that represented the summit of botanical investigation in the British Empire. To get a student admission ticket, however, required a note from a professional scientist and, in spite of having worked closely with multiple professionals in her time doing research at the British Museum, nobody had ever thought to give this promising amateur such a pass in order to allow her to further her work. So, she turned to a relative, Sir Henry Roscoe, an eminent scientist but possessed of determined political and scientific adversaries. He took his niece’s case firmly in hand and marched with her to the Kew Gardens, introducing her to the top scientists there and to the director of the institution itself, William Thiselton-Dyer.
As it turned out, a simple written request for a pass would have served Potter better. Marching in behind her famous relation to the director himself, presenting theories that flew in the face of the accepted wisdom being generated by the very institution whose aid she was seeking did not sit well with the established scientists there, and when she wrote up her findings, Thiselton-Dyer’s response to her uncle was so dismissive and rude that Roscoe refused to share its contents with her.
Sir Henry, however, was not to be put off so easily. He worked closely with Potter to put her results into the form of a formal scientific paper and, on April 1, 1897, that paper, ‘On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae’ was read before the prestigious Linnean Society by George Massee (Beatrix, as a woman, was ineligible to join the Linnean Society or attend its meetings). It was a report from an amateur naturalist clearly dedicated to her topic and possessing uncommon gifts of observation and reproduction which, had it come from a man, would have led to scientific contacts and mentoring that would have allowed the clear promise evident therein to come to something like a mature fruition. As it was, the paper was by a woman, and though received positively the Society felt it had done more than its duty in listening to the paper in the first place and declined to publish it. Nobody among the Society felt it incumbent upon them to foster this unusual new talent in their midst.
Beatrix Potter would continue to study the ways of nature after her own fashion, and in particular in later life became deeply interested in the practice and theory of animal husbandry, but after the cool dismissal of her work by a scientific establishment too sure of its preeminence to go to any particular lengths in the development of outsider talent, Potter never again attempted a scientific paper.
Four years later, in an attempt to earn some money for herself independently of her parents, and to find something at last to do with her life that did not center around the stultifying routine of Victorian respectability, she privately published her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the runaway success of which allowed her to finally, tentatively, reach for something like a life independent of her parents’ restrictive wishes. During the next two decades, she produced her “little books” at the rate of one or two a year, creating images and words to be savored by children for centuries to come – Jeremy Fisher attempting to catch minnows, Mr. McGregor glancing down in consternation at the chaos following one of Benjamin Bunny’s adventures, Jemima Puddle Duck in her blue bonnet, and with the income from the books she bought old farm properties with the intent of giving them to the National Trust in order that the old country ways might be protected from the encroachment of asphalt and airplanes. She raised heritage Herdwick sheep that she was fiercely proud of and, as her eyesight deteriorated and her joy in writing books waned, she happily settled down to a farmer’s life, dressing in simple clothes (sometimes including a rhubarb leaf tied around her head to hold back the sun) and lending her voice and fame to conservation causes that happened to cross her path.
She died in 1943, happy that her memory remained complete and bursting with a lifetime of natural sights and sounds. Twenty four years later, several dozen of her illustrations were employed by W.P.K. Findlay in his book Wayside and Woodland Fungi, the first time her illustrations were used in a scientific publication, and the start of a reevaluation of her status as a keen and underappreciated naturalist in the great tradition of amateur Victorian biology.
Lead image: National Trust, pubic domain / Funghi images via Armitt Museum
FURTHER READING: Linda Lear, whom we’ve run into before as the author of the definitive life of Rachel Carson, also authored an important book detailing Beatrix Potter’s work as a naturalist/illustrator, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (2007), which is equally necessary reading. I’d also recommend Matthew Dennison’s 2017 book ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’: The Life of Beatrix Potter as a charming and quick read detailing with particular insight her early decades of deep but concentrated isolation.
And for more awesome Women in Science comics, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 1, 2 and 3