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“We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.”






by Tim Sullivan

Today’s fierce female is Maria Sibylla Merian.

Born in Frankfurt in 1647, Maria’s stepfather taught her to paint, and she soon drew her inspiration from studying the natural world. She began capturing and observing insects, creating detailed depictions of their life cycles and interactions. She married Johann Graff at 18 years old and had two daughters. Her husband never supported her work, and he ultimately divorced her in 1692.

Undeterred, Maria continued her research and paintings. Women at the time were not able to paint with oil due to the guild system (what?), so she primarily painted in watercolors. She managed to publish several volumes of her work, as well as sell her studies of insects and wildlife as decorative art. 

One of Maria’s most important contributions to science were her detailed depictions and research into the lifecycle of butterflies and moths. Her recognization of these animals interactions with other insects and plants formed part of our understanding of the natural world as ecosystems. She had great respect for her subjects and insisted on only observing live creatures, rather than relying on dead insects and plants that were more commonly used for observation.

In 1699, Maria became the first woman scientist to embark on a research expedition in South America when she set out with her daughter for Dutch Suriname. She spent several years researching and classifying the rich natural world around her, taking care to note the indigenous names and uses of various plants and insects. She was the first European to classify hundreds of different species, including the tarantula, and her work formed the basis for much of our understanding of the rich ecosystem found in this tropical region. 

After surviving a bout of malaria, Maria relocated to Amsterdam, where she continued her work, housing ant colonies and publishing several more volumes of her research. She died in 1717 at the age of 69. Her daughters Joanna and Dorothea continued their mothers’ work, themselves illustrating hundreds of studies of the natural world. 

“The kind of creatures I sought were quite different. [I only wished to study] the generation, reproduction and transformation of the creatures, how one emerges from the other, [and] the nature of their diet…Therefore, I would ask you to be so kind and not to send me any more [dead] creatures, for I have no use for them."

“Art and nature shall always be wrestling until they eventually conquer one another so that the victory is the same stroke and line: that which is conquered, conquers at the same time.”

September 3,  2019



“We liked to be known as the clever girls. When we decorated our hands with henna for holidays and weddings, we drew calculus and chemical formulae instead of flowers and butterflies.” 



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