Ungreat People: Helen Beatrix Potter and her Forgotten Career

The name ‘Beatrix Potter’ might not ring a bell, but I do hope her work was part of your childhood. She is the writer and illustrator of the Tale of Peter Rabbit, a children’s book narrating the cheeky adventures of a fluffy brown rabbit who is chased around by a not-so-pleased gardener. If you don’t know the book, plenty of others sure do. Since its publication in 1902, the story has been translated into 36 languages and has become one of the best-selling books of all time.

If she’s so popular, you may ask, why is she part of this series? Well, while she enjoyed great fame in her literary endeavours, her contributions to the field of natural science have lived in the shadows up until recently. Beatrix was an avid observer of the natural world and loved to accurately illustrate what she saw around her. Her drawings of Peter Rabbit, for example, are based on sketches of her real pet bunny, Benjamin Bouncer. Her life drawing skills were paired with her scientific interests.

In 1888, Beatrix developed a fascination for mycology, the scientific study of fungi. It may be a coincidence, but the gardener in the Tale of Peter Rabbit resembles her mentor in the field, Charles McIntosh, an amateur mycologist who she exchanged notes with over lengthy letters. During the following ten years, she produced over 450 drawings and watercolours of fungi species which were approved by McIntosh. Her beautiful and scientifically detailed works are often used as a reference by mycologists researching at the Armitt Museum and Library to whom the author gifted most of her work.

This impressive collection was also the basis of a research paper on germination that she wrote for the Linnean Society of London, a prestigious natural history organisation. Because of her gender, Beatrix was unable to present the paper herself. Her research obstacles had started earlier when the director of Kew Gardens had mocked her findings and refused to look at her drawings. Most of her work on the paper was conducted in her kitchen, where many of her drawings were sadly contaminated.

Her theory of germination had its errors, and some modern scientists have been quick to argue that we shouldn’t cast Beatrix’s contributions as novel or groundbreaking. But I do wonder what would have happened if she’d received more encouragement from the scientific community. Perhaps between writing and drawing beautiful children’s books she would have found time to pursue a career in mycology.

[Natàlia Fernández]

[Image credit: Elena Roselli]






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