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Mother of Biology - Maria Sibylla Merian

Who is the mother of biology? Aristotle is credited as the father of biology, but who is the mother? Unfortunately women were kept out of academics for such a great part of history that it is hard to define any important influences by women in science before the 20th century. Still, a few women were able to perform rigorous studies in the sciences well before their time.

The oldest record of a woman that succeeded working on a scientific endeavor was Maria Sibylla Merian, who lived from 1647 to 1717 in Germany. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Merianís life was that she was not considered a scientist at all, but an artist. Through her pointed observations and her keen skills as an illustrator and painter, Merian created some of the best-kept records of flora and fauna in Germany in the seventeenth century.

She was born in Frankfurt to a printmaker, and when her father died her mother remarried a painter. Through her stepfather Merian was trained in the arts. She herself married a painter and kept a lifelong interest in painting the plants and animals she observed in the world around her. Her first published work was a book of European moths and butterflies. Merian distinguished her self from other scientific illustrators who drew from pinned specimens; she collected and raised living specimens for her drawings and paintings, giving much more accurate representations.

She lived between Germany and Holland during most her life, where she raised two daughters and eventually was divorced from her husband. Throughout this time she continued to paint and illustrate for scientific publications and also to build her own collections. She became interested in the flora and fauna of the Dutch and German colonies.

At 52 years old she went to South America for two years with her youngest daughter. This was controversial at the time, as they went without a male escort. During this time, however, Merian observed, collected, drew, and painted a comprehensive work of the insects of Surinam, the region she stayed in. Because she continued to collect and rear live insects she represented the entire lifecycle of many of these insects, leading this work to receive international acclaim and define her influence in the world of biology.

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