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Maria Sybilla Merian – Mother of Entomology

maria sibylla merian portrait

German-Dutch naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, has been dead for over 350 years but she is currently having a moment in popular culture. Maria’s work is featured on Etsy and Pinterest. Also, you can read about her curiosity for butterflies and caterpillars in many children’s books. She is known as a woman scientist who created beautifully illustrated books. Even though she was trained as an artist, Maria is arguably one of the first true field ecologists.

Eggs, Caterpillers, Cocoons & Butterflies

At the age of fifty-two, Maria travelled to Suriname, South America. Her aim was to study their indigenous flora and fauna.  She documented many new species of Butterflies and moths. This included all stages of the life cycle and the host plant on which the caterpillar lives. Two years later, she returned to Amsterdam to begin work on a beautifully illustrated book.  The book is called the ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium‘ (‘The Metamorphoses of the Insects of Suriname’) and was published in 1705.

How did such a scientific superhero all but disappear from science history?

At the time, however her Metamorphosis ideas directly challenged the ‘spontaneous germination’ theory.  Spontaneous germination is a theory where living organisms can originate from inanimate objects. Examples of spontaneous generation are:

  • dust creates fleas
  • maggots arise from rotting meat
  • bread or wheat left in a dark corner produces mice

Although these ideas seem ridiculous to us now, the theory was hotly debated for hundreds of years. Maria did receive much acclaim for her work but her findings came under scientific criticism. Shoddy reproductions of her work along with setbacks to women’s roles in 18th and 19th century Europe, resulted in her works being largely forgotten.

maria sibylla merian google doodle

maria sibylla merian modern phot0Luckily for us, her work was rediscovered in the 20th century. Maria Sibylla Merian has been featured on a Google Doodle, a German stamp and a bank note. She has also had several new insects named after her. Discover her story with your kids, go to page 120 in “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls”!

In my youth, I spent my time investigating insects.

Maria Sibylla Merian

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