Maria Merian’s Butterflies: The Illustrated Story of How a 17th-Century Woman Forever Changed the Course of Science Through Art
A heartening homage to a courageous woman who fought superstition with science and love.
By Maria Popova
While putting together the annual omnibus of the year’s best children’s books, I was reminded of how woefully rare inspired children’s books about science are in our culture — as rare, perhaps, as are homages to pioneering female scientists and celebrations of the intersection of art and science. The confluence of these three rarities is what makes Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian (public library) so wonderful. Writer Margarita Engle and artist Julie Paschkis — the talent behind the gorgeous illustrated tale of Pablo Neruda’s life — tell the story of 17th-century German naturalist and illustrator Maria Merian (April 2, 1647–January 13, 1717), whose studies of butterfly metamorphosis are among the most important contributions to the field of entomology in the history of science and forever transformed natural history illustration.
There are many ennobling and empowering threads to the story of Merian’s life — how she began studying insects as a young girl, two centuries before the dawn of science education for women; how she trained tirelessly in art, then brought those skills to illuminating science, all while raising her daughters; how she traveled to South Africa with her young daughter in an era when women had practically no agency of mobility; how she continued to work even after a stroke left her paralyzed.
But perhaps most pause-giving of all is the reminder of just how much superstition early scientists had to overcome in the service of simple truth: In Merian’s time, people considered insects evil and found the “supernatural” process of metamorphosis particularly ominous, believing it was witchcraft that transformed the insect from one state to another.
By meticulous and attentive observation, Merian proved that the process was very much a natural one, and beautifully so. She was only thirteen. Her groundbreaking work was a prescient testament to Richard Feynman’s famous assertion that science only adds to the mystery and the awe of the natural world.
When people understand the life cycles of creatures that change forms, they will stop calling small animals evil. They will learn, as I have, by seeing a wingless caterpillar turn into a flying summer bird.
On her site, Paschkis shares her research process and offers a fascinating history of insect illustration.
Published November 25, 2014