The original women in STEM

Women played a vital role in the early history of botany - let's not reduce their contribution to kitsch romance.
A cyanotype photogram made by Anna Atkins, part of her 1843 book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Credit: Public Domain
A cyanotype photogram made by Anna Atkins, part of her 1843 book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Credit: Public Domain
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

There’s one road in Oxford which nearly causes me to fall off my bike every time I cycle down it. The problem isn’t pot-holes, black ice, or the fact that I have a bad habit of seeing how long I can cycle for without touching the handlebars, but botany. 

Not too far from where I live, there is boarding up on a building site covered with botanical images: spectral, spindly silhouettes of plants are picked out on differing shades of blue backgrounds. Ferns are lined up for attention, petals are pressed open, and the varying white-grey colours of an algae give the allusion of continual movement. The pictures are so wonderfully distracting as to constitute, at least for me, a true traffic danger. 

Strictly speaking, the images are cyanotypes – a nineteenth-century photographic invention. Chemicals are brushed on to paper, which is then exposed to sunlight with an object on top for a short amount of time. After the paper is washed, the silhouette of the object remains; it prevented that part of the paper from being fully exposed to sunlight. 

These cyanotypes are by Anna Atkins: a nineteenth-century English botanist. The daughter of zoologist and mineralist John George Children, Atkins hand-illustrated his translation of Lamarck’s Genera of Shells in 1823, collected specimens from all over the world, and was a member of the Botanical Society of London. Her most dramatic, and remembered, scientific contribution is these ghostly blue images – permanent papery records of plants that have long wilted, dried, and disintegrated. 

In 1841, the Irish botanist William Harvey published A Manual of the British Marine Algae. The hefty tome had one significant problem: it was not illustrated at all, not even with drawings. Harvey relied on lengthy descriptions – ‘filaments decumbent, sending out fibrous radicles in the lower part’, ‘filaments short, erect, tufted, sparingly branched’ – to distinguish between species and types. Densely scholarly, and with an immense attention to detail, the book is still undeniably difficult to use: who really has the time, or ability, to distinguish between ‘capsules ovate’ and ‘capsules clustered, sessile’. 

Atkins’s privately printed Photographs of British Algae appeared in instalments between 1843 and 1853; in the place of Harvey’s dry descriptions, Atkins made more than 400 individual cyanotypes to enumerate, immortalise, and display the algae. The book is not just a botanical success; it is a photographic, artistic, and scientific triumph. The images are captured with an awareness of negative space, movement, and drama that goes beyond simple scientific explanation.

But, this nineteenth-century moment of scientific development – Atkins was the first person to publish a book illustrated by photographs, and arguably the first woman to make a photograph – did not come from nowhere. Prior to Atkins, and in the centuries preceding photography, women had long been engaged in botany. 

As early as the seventeenth century, the Duchess of Beaufort, Mary Somerset had a botanical correspondence and collection which rivalled those of male collectors. Sir Hans Sloane – whose collection provided the founding basis of the National History Museum – included Somerset’s specimens in his own herbarium with the label ‘plants sent to me from Badminton from her Grace the Duchess of Beaufort, very well preserved and flourishing there better than in any garden of Europe I ever saw’. 

Despite Somerset’s fears over her own lack of education – she apologises in a letter for having no ‘latine’ and so worries for the classification of her specimens – she created and maintained an impressive collection; she sourced seeds from all over the world, commissioned illustrations by the famous botanical artist Everard Kickius, and even created her own twelve-volume herbarium. 

For Somerset, botany was a means of engaging in a world beyond her own Gloucestershire estate and Chelsea garden, as well as a means of alleviating the ‘melancholy’ she struggled with throughout her life. But to dismiss her involvement as dilettantish or depressive is to ignore her scientific importance, and misunderstand the niche botany provided for women. 

Initially, the widespread female involvement in botany – botanical education was a favourite subject of women’s periodicals of the eighteenth century – can be seen as an ideal, distinctly unradical female pastime. Women and flowers. Pretty girls and pretty plants. It maps perfectly onto John Ruskin’s mid-nineteenth century lecture Of Queen’s Gardens in which he argues that ‘the path of a good woman is indeed strewn with flowers; but they rise behind her steps’; ‘the harebells should bloom, not stoop, as she passes’. Women are meant to tend to delicate living beings. 

But both Atkins and Somerset – as well as a whole host of other women botanists, Elizabeth Blackwell, Mary Delany, and Anne Dixon among them – did not just tend to their plants, they catalogued, examined, wrote, photographed, embroidered, painted, and collected. Their involvement in botany is more than feminine care or pastime; it is an entry into scientific methodology, artistic creation, and widespread correspondence. The flower garden – with all its feminine, airy, inconsequential connotations – was also the crucible of women’s involvement in science. It would be a mistake to discount the original women in STEM, along with the stems, stamens, and petals of their consideration. 

Francesca Peacock

Francesca Peacock is a member of the Engelsberg Ideas editorial team.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.