Beatrix Potter: author, scientist and fungus-lover

By Alex Jackson

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of revered children’s author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter, celebrated worldwide for such beloved literary characters as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-duck. In this celebration of her literary and artistic legacy, it is easy to forget she was a keen natural scientist.

Influenced by family holidays in Scotland, Potter was fascinated by the natural world from a young age. Encouraged to follow her interests, she explored the outdoors with sketchbook and camera, honing her skills as an artist, by drawing and sketching her school room pets: mice, rabbits and hedgehogs. Led first by her imagination, she developed a broad interest in the natural sciences: particularly archaeology, entomology and mycology, producing accurate watercolour drawings of unusual fossils, fungi, and archaeological artefacts.

Potter’s uncle, Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe FRS, an eminent nineteenth-century chemist, recognised her artistic talent and encouraged her scientific interests. By the 1890s, Potter’s skills in mycology drew Roscoe’s attention when he learned she had successfully germinated spores of a class of fungi, and had ideas on how they reproduced. He used his scientific connections with botanists at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens to gain a student card for his niece and to introduce her to Kew botanists interested in mycology.

Although Potter had good reason to think that her success might break some new ground, the botanists at Kew were sceptical. One Kew scientist, George Massee , however, was sufficiently interested in Potter’s drawings, encouraging her to continue experimenting. Although the director of Kew, William Thistleton-Dyer refused to give Potter’s theories or her drawings much attention both because she was an amateur and a female, Roscoe encouraged his niece to write up her investigations and offer her drawings in a paper to the Linnean Society .

In 1897, Potter put forward her paper, which Massee presented to the Linnean Society, since women could not be members or attend a meeting. Her paper, On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae, was not given much notice and she quickly withdrew it, recognising that her samples were likely contaminated. Sadly, her paper has since been lost, so we can only speculate on what Potter actually concluded.

Potter, who never had any ambition to become a professional mycologist, turned her attention to writing and illustrating stories and greetings cards. In 1901, she privately published a picture letter she had written to a young child, A Tale of Peter Rabbit. Frederick Warne & Co. bought and published the letter in colour the following year. Potter’s lasting contribution to art and story was thereafter assured.

Until quite recently, Potter’s accomplishments and her experiments in natural science went unrecognised. Upon her death in 1943, Potter left hundreds of her mycological drawings and paintings to the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside, where she and her husband had been active members. Today, they are valued not only for their beauty and precision, but also for the assistance they provide modern mycologists in identifying a variety of fungi.

In 1997, the Linnean Society issued a posthumous apology to Potter, noting the sexism displayed in the handling of her research and its policy toward the contributions of women.

This important episode in Beatrix Potter’s life, and the assistance she received from her famous uncle, has not been forgotten. Henry Roscoe’s influence on Potter lives on in one of her most charming and early drawings, A Dream of Toasted Cheese, celebrating the 1899 publication of Roscoe’s textbook First Step in Chemistry. Now in private hands, the illustration is rarely seen in public.

“With reference to this little book,” Roscoe wrote in 1906, “I here insert a reproduction of a coloured drawing by my niece, Miss Beatrix Potter, as original as it is humorous, which was presented to me by the artist on publication of the work.”

London-born, Henry Roscoe, whose family roots were in Liverpool, studied at University College London, before moving to Heidelberg, Germany, where he worked under Robert Bunsen , inventor of the new-fangled apparatus that inspired Potter’s drawing. Together, using magnesium as a light source, Roscoe and Bunsen reputedly carried out the first flashlight photography in 1864. Their research laid the foundations of comparative photochemistry.

The English chemist, who married Beatrix Potter’s aunt, Lucy Potter, was a pioneer in photography and also the first to obtain the element vanadium in its pure form. His writings and public lectures spread an appreciation of the national importance of chemistry, while his academic career as professor of chemistry at Owens College, Manchester and later as vice-chancellor of the University of London, saw him promote the value of scientific and technical education. Roscoe also served as president of the Chemical Society (now the Royal Society of Chemistry).

Ultimately, mycology’s loss was a gain for children’s literature. As we celebrate Potter’s anniversary let’s remember not only her remarkable artistic and story-telling skills but also her curiosity about the natural world that is the hallmark of every great scientist. © Guardian News and Media 2016