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Backing Beatrix: a legacy of encouragement

Copyright: BBSRC

"Upon the subject of chlorophyll and symbiosis I am afraid I am unpleasant. I could hardly contain myself with amusement” Beatrix Potter’s journal, 30 December 1896 

Though best-known for her delightful children’s stories set in a charming countryside, Beatrix Potter was a keen mycologist, drawing hundreds of fungi and submitting a paper on the reproduction of a certain species to the Linnean Society. However, Beatrix could not present her own paper because she was a woman.

In a time when societal roles were sharply defined by gender, opportunities for women - however educated, enthusiastic and capable they might be - were limited.

Young Beatrix. Copyright free (Wikimedia/Creative commons CC0)

Beatrix’s parents were supportive of education and their children’s enthusiasm for the natural world. Her third governess encouraged her to turn her illustrations into children’s stories. Beatrix and her brother, Walter Bertram, kept an array of small animals in their school room. They were allowed a great deal of freedom to explore the natural world, and family holidays to the countryside were an annual event - even the small pets would accompany them.

It was on one of these family holidays in Scotland in 1892 that Beatrix first met architect and revered naturalist Charles McIntosh. Inspired by natural forms - particularly plants and flowers - McIntosh was highly influential within the Art Nouveau movement, and shared artistic and scientific interest in the natural world, much like Beatrix. McIntosh taught 26-year-old Beatrix taxonomy and encouraged her to make her drawings more technical.

Back home in Kensington, Beatrix soon became a frequent visitor to the Herbarium at Kew Gardens, London. Eventually unsatisfied with mere visits, she wanted to begin studying at the Herbarium. Fortunately, her uncle and renowned chemist Sir Henry Roscoe arranged for his niece to meet Kew’s Director and seek permission to study. Permission was granted, and she undertook her first study visit the very next day. Over the next year, Beatrix would become well acquainted with the Herbarium’s Principal Assistant, George Massee.

Beatrix Potter: reproductive system of Hygrocybe coccinea, 1897. Copyright free (Wikimedia/Creative commons CC0)

Skilled and talented though she was, Beatrix’s status as a woman would become a hindrance. In 1897, Beatrix submitted a paper ‘On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae’ to the Linnean Society, but the paper had to be introduced by Massee because, as a female, Beatrix could not attend proceedings or read her own paper. Though forced to withdraw her paper owing to contaminated samples, she continued studying.

It wasn’t until 1997 - 100 years later - that the Linnean Society issued a posthumous apology to Beatrix for the sexism displayed in its handling of her research.

Clearly a collection of people, both men and women, supported and encouraged Beatrix, many of whom were in well-respected positions. These snippets of her story show the value of support in helping her become the celebrated author and illustrator - and now mycologist and conservationist - known today.

Beatrix’s story highlights the need to nurture and encourage others, especially those who are marginalised in society or lacking in opportunities. Her story is also a reminder to keep considering the barriers to success in society and finding ways to tear them down.

A small word of encouragement can make a world of difference.


Tags: skills and training people women feature