Monday, February 25, 2008

Beatrix versus the Botanists

When I was a sophomore at college in England I spent a summer working at the Freshwater Biological Association in the English Lake District. The cottage I stayed in was in a tiny village called Far Sawrey. Just down the road is the village of Near Sawrey which contains a small 17th century farm house where Beatrix Potter spent most of her later years, and where she wrote and set her many Peter Rabbit books.

Having mentioned it in class I thought I'd see if I could find out whether Beatrix Potter was happy in her later life or whether she resented being excluded from the male dominated scientific community. Thanks to the wonders of the internet I found a highly relevant book and, even better, the relevant chapter is available online as a sample chapter.

Chapter 1 of Liaisons of Life, Beatrix versus the Botanists, by Tom Wakeford describes Beatrix Potter's encounters with the scientific establishment. Fascinating reading and a picture of science at the turn of the century. Beatrix Potter was facing an uphill battle, not just as a woman in science but also in proposing lichens as a symbiotic and mutualistic association. James Crombie, a prominent English naturalist said:

"A useful and invigorating parasitism —who ever before heard of such a thing?"

and he described the relationship as:

"an unnatural union between a captive algal damsel and a tyrant fungal master."

After her aborted scientific career and her successful career as a children's author Beatrix Potter went on to a third, and equally successful career as a sheep breeder and conservationist in the English Lake District.

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