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The life aquatic
Name: Jeanne Villepreux-Power
Fields: Natural history and marine biology
Claim to fame: Inventor of the aquarium
Leaving behind her modest roots in rural France, Jeanne Villepreux-Power (1794-1871) walked to Paris to seek her fortune. Creating a wedding dress for royalty led to Jeanne meeting her own handsome prince who whisked her away to a life on a Mediterranean island. Here she found another passion, nature, and made it her second career – she studied
Sicily’s fl ora and fauna, as well as its aquatic life, inventing the aquarium along the way.
Jeanne Villepreux was the eldest child of a humble shoemaker in the village of Juillac. She was born on 25 September 1794, at a time when France had been ravaged by revolution and Robespierre’s Reign of Terror was sending thousands to the guillotine. However, growing up deep in the countryside, Jeanne had a quiet childhood. Her education was basic, learning little more than how to read and write.
Jeanne left home at the age of 18 and went to Paris on foot, covering a distance of over 400 kilometres. Once in the French capital, she became the assistant of a society dressmaker. From this lowly position, Jeanne went on to find fame when she created the wedding outfi t for the future Duchesse de Berry, a Sicilian princess who married the nephew of the French king in 1816. It was through this commission that Jeanne met a rich English nobleman and merchant named James Power. The couple were married in 1818 in Messina, Sicily, and went on to live on the island for more than 20 years.
Soon after her marriage, Jeanne began to take an interest in natural history. Entirely self-taught, she travelled around Sicily recording and describing its flora and fauna, collecting specimens of minerals, fossils, butterfl ies and shells. Jeanne was fascinated by living things, however, and was not content to look at dead samples. Drawn particularly to aquatic creatures, she sought ways to view them more closely.
Jeanne focused her studies on molluscs and her work on the pelagic octopus Argonauta argo, or greater Argonaut, brought her widespread renown. She was the first person to discover how the creature makes a sort of shell casing around itself and how it reproduces. It was during her research into this species that Jeanne made her greatest breakthrough: the invention of the aquarium. In order to observe live aquatic animals underwater, she created three different types of aquarium: a glass one of the type that we might recognise today, for use in her study; another made of glass, but surrounded by a cage, to submerge in the sea for studying small molluscs; and a third, a kind of cage for larger molluscs, which could be anchored at a chosen depth in the sea.
In 1839, Jeanne’s first book, Observations et expériences physiques sur plusieurs animaux marins et terrestres, was published, containing the results of her experiments. Three years later, her second book appeared: Guida per la Sicilia, which offered a detailed description of Sicily’s environment. In 1995, the Historical Society of Messina republished the work for the enjoyment of a modern audience.
As well as describing the nature of the island, Jeanne made some suggestions for preserving it. She laid down the foundations of aquaculture in Sicily, recommending that rivers lacking in fish be repopulated by feeding young caged fish until they were a suitable size to be introduced into depopulated rivers.
Jeanne and her husband left Sicily in 1843 and, from then on, split their time between Paris and London. Disaster struck when the ship carrying the vast majority of Jeanne’s collections, records and drawings sank on its way to London. After this, she undertook no further research but continued to write and publish.
For four months in the winter of 1870-1, Paris was besieged by the Prussian Army, which was attempting to starve the French into surrender. Jeanne fled the capital and returned to her childhood home of Juillac. Not long after this, she died.
As early as 1858, the British biologist Richard Owen described Villepreux-Power as the “mother of aquariophily”. The invention of the aquarium is perhaps her greatest bequest to marine biology, but the systematic observations that it enabled her to carry out certainly enhance this legacy, even though most of her research material was literally drowned.
From 1832, Jeanne was the only female member of Catania’s Academy of Natural Sciences. She was also a correspondent member of 17 academies, including the London Zoological Society.
For more than a century after her death, Jeanne Villepreux-Power was largely forgotten. In recent years, however, her work has been rediscovered and, in 1997, her name was given to a major crater on Venus discovered by the Magellan probe.