Spotlight on: Maria Sibylla Merian


 

Maria Sibylla Merian 

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in 1647 in Frankfurt. In 1665 she married Johann Andreas Graff. Maria was an artist, receiving support from her family and husband to draw, paint, and embroider. As was common for the time, her subjects were flowers and butterflies. However, she went beyond simply creating beautiful art – she used her skill to study insects in detail. Naturalism, as any science at the time, was reserved for men. However, she published the first detailed book on butterfly metamorphosis. Her marriage was an unhappy one and she eventually moved with her mother and daughters to Friesland where she continued her scientific observations studying frog development. She also studied Latin, the scientific language of the day. 

At the age of 52, Maria travelled to Suriname, South America in order to study various species of insects. Her work disproved the contemporary idea of “spontaneous generation”, the idea that insects were born of mud. She raised insects such as silkworms and studied development and life cycles. Her work also covered the interactions between plants and insects and was a major contribution to burgeoning ecological studies. Maria discovered which plants play an important role in the food chain, as well as a number of new plants and animals while in South America. Maria died in 1717, aged 69.