Beatrix Potter - Mycologist
Did You Know That Beatrix Potter Was a Mycologist?
Beatrix Potter is well known for her story books for children, but she's less well known as a mycologist - someone who studies fungi. Is this so surprising, though, when you see the charming illustrations for some of her best known works: The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, The Tale of Peter Rabbit or The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck?
Just look at the attention to detail, the carefully recorded animals and the choice of wild creatures. Beatrix Potter was, above all, a natural scientist. She loved nature, the countryside and all the creatures and plants within it.
Learn more about Beatrix Potter and 'her life in nature'.
Beatrix Potter the Naturalist - And the mystery of the lost scientific paper
From the first Beatrix's talent for whimsical story-telling and imaginative illustration shines through; She delighted in the magical nature of fungi, imagining them as they "laugh and clap their hands," and she loved "the fairy rings," as she describes them.
From 1881 to 1897 Beatrix Potter kept a Journal in which she made notes about her interests, which also included archaeology, geology, and entomology in addition to mycology, and recorded her opinions about art, society, and things of topical interests. All this was clearly secret as she invented a code which was finally 'cracked' in 1958.
Although she had the enthusiasm, keen eye and a talent for botanical drawing, she was helped to make her illustrations more scientific by Charles McIntosh. Beatrix Potter's research how fungi spores reproduced was sufficiently professional for her to have a paper accepted by the Linnean Society entitled, ''On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae'.
According to the Society records, the paper was received and accepted. It was sent out the the keeper of botany at the Natural History Museum, George Murray for review and he was favourably impressed. It was read on the 1st April 1897, but not by Beatrix. She was not allowed onto the premesis. Something that Elizabeth Philpot was also to come up against. (See below).
Instead, George Massee read the paper on Beatrix Potter's behalf and he said that it had been well received. He also, said that the paper needed more work. This was normal for scientific papers, however Beatrix withdrew the paper herself on 8th april.
It's not known why she did this. Nor did she ever finish it or resubmit it. Another mystery. But perhaps it was just that her life had moved on. She was now writing her stories and creating the charming illustrations that went with them. She moved to the Lake district in the north of England and took up sheep breeding. Perhaps she just never found either the time or inclination to pursue that particular path.
Beatrix Potter and Her Mycology Research - Woman's Hour BBC Radio 4 - broadcast on 20th April 2012
I was inspired to find out more about Beatrix Potter's study of fungus when I heard the article about it in Woman's Hour on Radio 4, because, although I had visited her house in the Lake District and had been brought up with her stories and books, and though I'd seen the film, Miss Potter and thoroughly enjoyed it, I still hadn't realised just how seriously she had been taken by the scientific community of the time.
Follow Beatrix through an imaginary day in her life
On Thursday 11th April Radio 4 broadcast a play based on a day in the life of Beatrix Potter at the age of 14.
- Beatrix Potter and her Mycology Research
The story of Beatrix and the Linnean Society.
- Once Upon A Time There Was A Beatrix by Lavinia Murray
Walk with Beatrix through an imaginary day in 19th century London. Aged fourteen Beatrix Potter was living in Kensington in the parental home with her parents. Her brother Bertram had gone to live in boarding school. Lonely and isolated, Beatrix goes
Beatrix Potters Illustrations of Fungi - by W. P. L. Findlay and Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter and Charles McIntosh - Beatrix's fungal mentor - so to speak!
Les Champignons by Beatrix Potter reproduces about 65 of her fungal paintings. Beatrix Potter, as far as we know, produced her first paintings of fungus in 1887. She continued to paint them, but became more serious in her studies around 1892 after meeting Charles McIntosh (1839-1922).
He worked with Beatrix and helped her to understand the basics of fungal taxonomy as well as sending her specimens and helping to improve her illustrations. For example in 1894 he wrote to her about how to draw the gills of the muchrooms and to show exactly how the gills are attached to the stems - an important element in the identification of fungi. (For the quotation see the excellent article Case Studies from which I found some of this information.)
What Did Beatrix Discover About Fungus?
Quite a lot!
One of the ways that Beatrix studied fungi and contributed to the pool of knowledge about it was through her illustrations, creating depictions of them in their mature state, but also in stages of growth and in section. She produce several hundred paintings of mushrooms, boletes, jelly fungi and many others. But she went much further than this.
Beatrix Potter also studied fungi under the microscope and made drawing of these also, but she took her work a step further when she began to grow fungi and to experiment with spore germination. In a letter dated February 1897 she told McIntosh that she had grown between 40 and 50 sorts of spore. She wasn't the first to have carried out this work, but she was well ahead of her time. She would have know the work of others in this field.
Heinrich Anton de Bary (1831-1888) had already worked in this area, and perfected laboratory techniques to study of fungal life cycles working in particular with plant pathogens. Julius Oscar Brefeld (1839-1925), who had been Bary's assistant, also worked on the laboratory germination of single spores. His work was published from 1872 onward and Beatrix would have been aware of these.
What Did Beatrix Discover About Lichens?
And what is lichen, anyway?
Lichen, those green, yellow or bluish growths of various form you see growing on the bark and branches of trees, and even on stone, is an association between a fungus and an alga. (And that's as far as I'm going to go!)
Beatrix Potter, with her interest in fungi, was also interested in lichen. She wrote about finding lichen in her journal entry for 3 December 1896, and it's know that she was aware of Schwendener's work on lichen.
Her journal entry for 30 December tells of a visit to see George Murray, Keeper of Botany at the British Museum where Beatrix asked him about lichen books. Other than that he wasn't a great deal of help.
She studied lichens under the microscope and she drew what she saw there, but she went much further in her quest to know more. She germinated the fungal spores of lichen genus Cladonia, at least, and may have germinated others. In Britain at least this was ground-breaking work, though others were carrying out research in Europe.
One of the many books That Beatrix Knew About Fungi and Lichen - The roots of her knowledge
What Is The Linnean Society?
A society dedicated to natural history
The Linnean Society is devoted, now as it was at it's creation 200 years ago, to 'The cultivation of the Science of Natural History in all its branches.'
The society was founded in 1788, and named after the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). He was a botanist and zoologist and his work has been kept by the society since 1829. The Society’s founder and first president was scientist and collector, Sir James Edward Smith (1759-1828).
It is somewhat gratifying that now the Executive Secretary of the society is a woman, Dr Elizabeth Rollinson.
Beatrix Potter - A Life in Nature - Biography of Beatrix Potter by Linda Lear
It's a Man's World!
Women were excluded from the Linnean Society
In 1897, Potter wasn't allowed to present her research on fungi to the Linnean Society - the world's oldest natural history society - because the Society did not admit women. Instead a male mycologist presented Potter's paper.
The Linnean Society, clearly now ashamed and contrite, has invited Ali Murfitt, a 29 year old ecology graduate, to present Potter's research. Dressed in the sort of clothes that Beatrix would have worn, Ali Murfitt will deliver a paper presenting Beatrix Potter's discoveries about fungi on Friday the 20th April 2012.
Because the original paper has been lost, Ali Murfitt has put together a paper based on what she knows about Potter's life. She used the biography of Beatrix Potter written by Linda Lear, ' A life In Nature'. She also used Beatrix Potter's own journal which was originally written in code but this has happily been translated.
Better late than never!
Beatrix Potter the Naturalist
Who was Beatrix Potter?
Who was Beatrix Potter? She was born in 28 July 1866 in a leafy and prosperous part of London, South Kensington. She had one brother, Walter, and she was educated at home where she excelled in languages, literature and drawing. She loved stories of all kinds and she combined the two talents by illustrating her favourite fairy stories, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
At first she was taken up with her research, but in 1901 she turned one of her illustrated letter into her first book, 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit', and produced her own privately printed edition of it. She also fell in love with her publisher, but sadly it was not to be. Her family objected to the match and he died shortly afterwards.
Never-the-less she went ahead and bought Hilltop Farm, Near Sawrey, a Lake District village in the hart of the rugged countryside of northern England and it was here that she produced some of her best books.
in 1909, Beatrix bought another property in Sawrey, Castle Farm, where she lived after she married William Heelis, a local solicitor. She became more and more interested in the local Herdwick sheep and in 1923 she bought Troutbeck Park, a sizable sheep farm which enabled her to become one of the most admired Herdwick breeders in the region. Beatrix became passionate about the preservation of the landscape of the Lake District and involved herself in the National Trust. she left a considerable acarage of land to the National Trust when she died which did much to preserve it from development.
Miss Potter - The Film of Her Life - Directed by Chris Noonan 2007
Beatrix Was Inspired by Landscape and Nature
You can visit too!
What inspired Beatrix's interest in nature in general and fungi in particular? Beatrix was brought up to have a love of nature and science by her parents, and loved to go on holiday to the Caringormes, Perthshire. In 1905 she bought the house Hill Top, at Near Sawrey, Hawkshead, Ambleside. This is within the beautiful Lake District area of northern England and it's now owned and run by the National Trust. You can visit the house and see for yourself where Beatrix lived: Telephone: 015394 36269.
From Science to Art
Potter's botanical studies informed her story illustrations
Beatrix Potter is now much better known for her charming books about wild animals with their whimsical illustrations. Take another look, though, and see how true to life these pictures really are.
Treat Yourself to The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter - This would be a wonderful gift for a baby
Women and Science at the Time of Beatrix Potter
Just how many Victorian women scientists were there?
Although women were excluded from University at the time of Beatrix Potter, women never-the-less studied science by themselves and made a real contribution. Linneus himself corresponded with several women: Anna Blackburn from Liverpool, Mary Delanye and Ann Monton are just three.
Two Victorian women who have found fame at last were the fossil hunters Elizabeth Philpot and Mary Anning who worked on the beaches of southern England around Lyme Regis. The author Tracy Chevalier has written a captivating novel which closely follows the facts of their lives.
Meet Pat Wolseley a Beatrix Potter of Our Times - Lichen expert Pat Wolseley takes part in the air survey with a local group
Much as Beatrix Potter delved into the mysteries of that strange alliance, Lichen, Pat Wolseley continues the exploration through her obsession with lichen and the environmental secrets it holds. Ancient and ubiquitous, this organism tells us so much about the quality of air we breathe now, and about the history of the environment.
Lichen has long been seen as an inidcator of clean air, but Pat shows us that certain species of lichen seem to thrive on certain kinds of pollution. Some enjoy road traffic pollution: others prefer acid rain. There is just so much more to lichen than meets the eye.
A Lichen Link List
- Pat Wolseley on Radio 4
Listen to this interview with Pat Wolseley on BBC Radio 4
Where Did I Get My Information? - Links to Sources
In addition to the sources indicated above, I found my information on the following sites:
The Tailor of Gloucester - Beatrix Potter's Favourite Tale - That little mouse tailor was Beatrix's personal favourite on BBC Radio 4
Philip Glassborow tells the tale of the mouse tailor on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 27th December 2012. In the original version of The Tailor of Gloucester, published in 1901, Beatrix Potter makes reference to many traditional songs and carols which were later cut from the story we all know today.
Beatrix Potter had paid a visit to Gloucester where she heard the true story behind the miraculous tale of grateful mice stitching the mayor's wonderful waistcoat after the tailor himself had fallen ill and there was no "no more twist".
From this tale Beatrix createdThe Tailor of Gloucester and sent it as a gift to Freda, the daughter of her old governess. Later she published this privately, including many local songs and carols associated with the old legend: that on the stroke of midnight on Christmas eve, the animals are able to speak.
Despite the fact that her Peter Rabbit tale had been so very successful, Frederick Warne declined to publish this story. When they did finally publish it, it was without most of its music.
In the radio programme, Philip Glassborow tracks down the sources of this music and explores Potter's passion for both the music and for the traditions at the heart of the story.
- Beatrix Potter's 'The Tailor of Gloucester '
Catch the radio broadcast here
© 2012 Barbara Walton