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Beatrix Potter—Illustrator and Science Enthusiast
by Charles King, April/May 1913
I’ve always been fascinated by science, and I’ve always considered myself an artist. But are the two mutually exclusive? I never really drew a parallel between the two disciplines until I heard this Science Friday podcast clip about Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) who as a child spent holidays in Scotland surrounded by animals and landscapes that she closely observed and painted.
Well known as a children’s book illustrator (The Tale ofPeter Rabbit being one of her most famous stories), she lived and worked during the Victorian Era—a time when women weren’t seen as equal to men as artists—much less as scientists. Despite this, her courage and curiosity coupled with her amazing talent and keen intellect, propelled her to fame not only as a writer and illustrator, but also as a well-respected scientific illustrator of botany and biology.
Potter began by creating microscopic drawings of fungus spores and even developed a theory in 1895 to explain their germination in 1895, which contradicted a previous theory proposed by another (male) scientist. She wrote papers, consulted botanists, and with the aid of her uncle was able to get her papers in the hands of scientists—one who basically told her she’d probably amount to nothing more in the scientific community than a museum assistant…so she created and sold her children’s stories (30 books in all)—and became a writer, well-respected scientific illustrator and later landowner, sheep farmer, and conservationist.
Of course she’s not the only one! Many other women have made significant contributions to the worlds of art and science through the centuries—but maybe rarer than she contributed so much to both disciplines. Even one of her naysayers had to admit “Beatrix Potter could have been any sort of natural scientist she wanted to be,” he said. “She was that good of a scholar.”