Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Maria Sibylla Merian

Scientific butterfly

Name: Maria Sibylla Merian
Nationality: German/Dutch
Lived: 1647-1717
Fields: Entomology
Claim to fame: One of the world’s first empirical entomologists

At a time when insects were generally thought to be “beasts of the devil”, the beautiful and accurate paintings of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), who metamorphosed from a guild master’s daughter into a veritable scientific butterfly, revolutionised the science of entomology with her breathtaking illustrations of the life cycles of insects.

Lasting brushstrokes

Maria Sibylla Merian, born in 1647 in Frankfurt, was the daughter of Swiss engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian the Elder who died when Maria was only three. In 1651, shortly after her natural father’s death, her mother married still-life painter Jacob Marrel who encouraged her to draw and paint.
This interest in painting, combined with her fascination with the natural world, led her to create her first images of insects and plants – from specimens she had captured – at the age of 13.
In 1665, around the age of 18, Maria married Marrel’s apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff, with whom she eventually had two daughters. She and her husband moved to Nuremberg in 1667, where she met with her first professional success. In 1681, her stepfather died and the family returned to Frankfurt two years later to handle the estate.

Continental shifts

After two decades of marriage, Maria, who was then 38, left her husband in 1685 (1692, according to some sources) because of his “shameful vices”, according to contemporary newspaper reports. At that time, divorce and separation were not as uncommon as we might think. Accompanied by her mother and daughters, she joined the Labadists – a form of puritanical Protestantism – commune in Friesland in the Netherlands. During her time there, she developed a fascination for the tropical plants her fellow Labadists brought back from their Surinam plantations.
In 1691, she moved to Amsterdam where her fame as a naturalist, artist and expert on insects provided her with access to the tropical collections of influential families which eventually led her to travel to Surinam.
In 1715, Maria suffered a stroke and was partially paralysed. The intrepid artist and scientist died in Amsterdam in 1717.

A beautiful metamorphosis

Like the insects she painted so exquisitely, Maria Merian also underwent an impressive metamorphosis from craftswoman to artist and scientist. Maria, whose education was typical of a guild master’s daughter, trained as an apprentice at home. In addition, being the stepdaughter of a prominent master painter helped hone her skills considerably.
“In my youth, I spent my time investigating insects,” she explained in one of her books, because she noticed that “caterpillars produced beautiful butterflies or moths”. This sparked in her a fascination bordering on obsession: “I withdrew from human society and engaged exclusively in these investigations.”

Flower power

While in Nuremberg, Maria took the unusual step of setting up shop for herself, rather than becoming a partner in her husband’s business. She also took on many female students from wealthy families which provided her with access to the fi nest gardens. Her investigations there led to the publication of her first book in 1675 entitled Neues Blumenbuch (New book of flowers). With this book, she hoped to cash in on the flower craze sweeping across Europe at the time – for instance, one tulip bulb could cost about 2 000 Dutch fl orins (the average annual income in 1620 was 150 fl orins). Her second book on caterpillars and their metamorphosis appeared in 1679.
The fascination she developed in the Netherlands for tropical fl ora and fauna led her to embark on a demanding expedition to Surinam in 1699, where she observed and painted the local animals and plants, described their local uses and even gave them their native names. However, the state of affairs that prevailed in the Dutch colony distressed her. She noted that the settlers “mock me because I am interested in something other than sugar”, and expressed horror at the plight of slaves. She wrote that they used a local plant to induce abortion “so that their children will not become slaves like they are”.
Malaria forced her to return to the Netherlands in 1701. Four years later, she published her seminal work Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium about the insects of Surinam.

Scientific achievements

In early modern science, women often worked as observers and illustrators, so Maria Merian’s training in the arts and crafts proved to be her passport into the world of science. Her painstaking observation skills were to prove handy in counteracting the general belief at the time in the Aristotelian idea that insects came from a “spontaneous generation of rotting mud”.
During her career, Maria described the life cycles of 186 insect species. Through her thorough empirical research, she helped put the study of insects – entomology – on to a more scientific footing.
Her works, which were published in German as opposed to Latin, helped raise awareness of metamorphosis among ordinary people (albeit high society), but were shunned by many scientists because she did not use Latin, the language of learning at the time. So popular were her three books that 19 editions appeared between 1665 and 1771.
Russia’s Tsar Peter I, a great admirer of her work, hung a portrait of Maria in his study. The celebrated German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe marvelled at how her paintings combined both art and science.
In recent years, Maria has been rediscovered and recognised. Prior to the introduction of the euro, her portrait adorned the 500 Deutschmark note. Her portrait has also appeared on stamps and many schools are named after her. In 2005, a modern research vessel bearing her name was launched in Germany.