241: The Self-Empowered Woman: Maria Sibylla Merian

Dear Followers,

I love stories about brave women who will do anything to follow their passion. So when I learned about Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), I wanted to share this amazing story of a Self-Empowered Woman from centuries ago. She was a descendant of the Swiss Merian family, who were founders of one of Europe’s largest publishing houses back in the 17th century. Her father died when she was only three years old (1: No Paternal Safety Net), and her mother married the flower- and still-life painter Jacob Marrel, who encouraged his young step-daughter to draw and paint (4: Supportive Someone). Merian had been born in Frankfurt, Germany, where she stayed until she was 23 years old.

By the time she was only 13, she had already painted her first images of insects and plants that she had gathered on her own or that she had studied from books about natural history (2: An Early Sense of Direction). In her words, “I spent my time investigating insects. At the beginning, I started with silkworms…[and] realized that other caterpillars produce beautiful butterflies or moths….This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to see how they changed.”

In 1665, she married Johann Andaers Graff, and in 1668 had her first child, Johanna Helena. Two years later the family moved to her husband’s hometown where she continued to paint on parchment and linen. When she was only 28, in 1675, she published her first book of natural illustrations, titled Neues Blumenbuch. She also created designs for embroidery, and gave drawing lessons to the unmarried daughters of wealthy families. In 1678, she gave birth to her second daughter Dorothea Maria, but her marriage had become deeply unhappy (15: Forget About Prince Charming). After her stepfather died in 1681, she moved in with her mother, and became a member of the Labadist religious community.

She continued to publish a series of popular books about insects, and in 1699 the then-governor of the Dutch colony of Surinam persuaded the city of Amsterdam to award Merian a grant so she could paint the local fauna (11: Risk Addiction). With her younger daughter, Dorothea—and after selling 255 of her own paintings to help finance the trip—Merian, at age 52, sailed nearly 5000 miles to study insects in the jungles of Surinam. After she met the governor of Surinam, she traveled around the colony and sketched local animals and plants, but she was critical of and outspoken about the way Dutch planters treated the natives and the black slaves (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest). Many historians feel that her ground (and glass ceiling) breaking scientific expedition to South America makes her the first person to “plan a journey rooted solely in science.” After spending two years studying the insects and plants of Surinam, a bad case of Malaria forced her to return to Europe. In 1705, her beautifully illustrated book about the insects of Surinam made her famous, and she was considered to be the leading entomologist of her time. Insects were considered “vile and disgusting,” and few scientists—much less women—were interested in studying them. But her work described and displayed the life cycles of 186 insect species, and helped people better understand the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly.

In 1715, when she was 67, Merian suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed. She tried to continue her work, but was unsuccessful. She died in January of 1717, and was listed in the local registry as a pauper (12: Hard Times). After her death her younger daughter, Dorothea, posthumously published a collection of her mother’s work.

April 2nd, 2017 will be the 370th anniversary of her birth, and her major work Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium was republished last December along with 60 plates, original descriptions, as well as stories about Merian’s life. Kay Etheridge (a zoologist at Gettysburg College) commented, “It was kind of stunning when she sort of dropped off into oblivion. Victorians started putting women in a box, and they’re still trying to crawl out of it.”

About Marilyn Murray Willison

The author of six non-fiction books, Willison worked as Health and Fitness Editor at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and wrote book reviews, health, beauty, fashion, and travel articles on a regular basis for the Los Angeles Times. Her byline has appeared in a wide variety of American newspapers and magazines.