Beatrix Potter: Pioneering Scientist or Passionate Amateur
When you think of Beatrix Potter, you might think of one of her beloved creations: the gullible Jemima Puddleduck, impertinent Squirrel Nutkin or, of course, the foolhardy Peter Rabbit, risking it all in Mr McGregor’s garden for a few broad beans and radishes.
You’re probably less likely to think of mushrooms.
But before publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902, the British writer and illustrator was interested in a range of scientific disciplines. The field that attracted her interest the most was mycology – the study of fungi.
For at least a decade, Potter painted hundreds of detailed, accurate images of mushrooms. She studied them under a microscope to investigate how they reproduced and wrote a paper on germinating fungal spores that was presented at the prestigious Linnean Society of London.
In recent years, this lesser-known side of Potter’s life has caused controversy. Historians, writers and scientists have interpreted her surviving letters and journal in very different ways. Some have suggested that she was a pioneering scientist whose contributions were suppressed by the patriarchal Victorian scientific establishment. Others have described her as an ambitious, well-connected amateur with an overinflated sense of her work’s importance – one that fooled later writers into believing she was breaking new ground.
Potter’s first known watercolours of mushrooms date from the summer of 1887, when she was 20 years old. By the early 1890s, more and more of Potter’s art focused on fungi.
Potter had a passion for painting beautiful specimens – Linda Lear
It was the fashion for Victorian women to illustrate botanical subjects. But it was also an interest she’d had from a young age, when she would sketch and paint on long family holidays in the countryside.
“Beatrix’s interest in drawing and painting mushrooms, or fungi, began as a passion for painting beautiful specimens wherever she found them,” wrote historian Linda Lear in her 2007 biography Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. “She was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques.”
In October 1892, Potter met with Charles McIntosh, a naturalist she had known since she was four: he was the local postman in Dalguise, Scotland, where her family holidayed for many years. McIntosh admired her pictures, sent her specimens to paint and advised her on scientific classification and microscope techniques. She sent him copies of her pictures in return.
She would go on to produce some 350 highly accurate pictures of fungi, mosses and spores.
By 1895, Potter’s interest in fungi was becoming even more scientific. Following advice from McIntosh, she began to include cross sections of mushrooms in her illustrations to show their gills and used a microscope to draw their tiny spores. She speculated about whether these spores could germinate and the environments in which they might do so.
Potter produced some 350 highly accurate pictures of fungi, mosses and spores
In May 1896 her uncle – the eminent chemist Sir Henry Roscoe – introduced her to George Massee, the mycologist at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens. By that summer she was successfully germinating spores of various fungi on glass plates and measuring their growth under a microscope.
Potter believed her spore germination work and ideas about fungal reproduction were breaking new ground. Massee was sceptical. He advised her to read the work of German mycologist Julius Brefeld, who had germinated spores in the 1860s as part of pioneering work on fungi culturing techniques.
Potter was unperturbed. Roscoe encouraged her to go over Massee’s head by writing up her findings to show William Thistleton-Dyer – the director of Kew. In her account of the meeting in December 1896, Potter wrote that Thistleton-Dyer was dismissive and patronising. “I informed him that it would be in all the books in ten years, whether or no, and departed giggling,” she said.
Potter went on to present her work to the Linnean Society of London, which promotes natural history.
Potter also began to engage leading figures on the question of the true nature of lichens. This was a fierce botanical controversy in the late 19th Century: at the time, lichens were thought to be distinct organisms. But in the 1860s, the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener proposed the idea that lichens were, instead, closely interwoven combinations of fungi and algae. Although subsequent work proved Schwendener correct – the fungus depends on either algae or cyanobacteria to provide some of the organic nutrients it needs – his ideas initially provoked hostility and derision from his peers.
The true nature of lichens was a fierce botanical controversy in the late 19th Century
In a journal entry dated 30 December 1896, Potter described taking what she thought was a lichen she had grown from fungal spores, to show to George Murray, the Natural History Museum’s Keeper of Botany. He told her it was a fungus that resembled a lichen. She then asked him for his views on the lichen controversy. “He was so very high-handedly contemptuous of old-fashioned lichenologists,” she wrote.
Potter’s journal, written in code, was translated by Potter enthusiast Leslie Linder and published in 1966. In The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897, Linder wrote in a footnote, “It sounds as if Mr Murray was casting doubt on the possibility of the two partners living in symbiosis… whereas Beatrix Potter was apparently convinced of this.”
Some prominent writers have taken this footnote at face value. They have suggested that Potter had carried out work that persuaded her Schwendener was right – and that she was rebuffed by an elitist scientific establishment.
“The soon-to-be-famous children’s illustrator was hounded out of biology by the closed ranks and narrow minds of London’s top scientific institutes,” wrote Tom Wakeford in his 2000 book Liaisons of Life. “Their members refused to accept Beatrix’s evidence that the curious living encrustations, known as lichens, on tree-trunks, seashores and walls, were made up of not one but two organisms in intimate liaison.”
In that interpretation, of course, Potter would have been on the right side of history. But in more recent years, mycologists have called this view incorrect: in fact, the opposite was true – Potter thought lichens were single organisms. Linder’s footnote was wrong. The error made it into biographies like Lear’s.
“I was taken in by Lindar’s footnote on her journal, and so I wrote that Beatrix Potter supported Schwendener, and did believe in dualism,” Lear said. “I was corrected by some young American mycologists. We went back to the sources and I realised it was she who was an old fashioned lichenologist.”
One such mycologist, Nicholas Money of Miami University, concluded that Potter thought lichens were formed by fungi that could generate their own chlorophyll.
It was Potter who was an old fashioned lichenologist – Lear
“Potter was being very egotistical in her dealings with Murray and Thistleton-Dyer,” Money said. “I’m guessing that they were a bit contemptuous towards her because by the time she was doing this work, a great deal of evidence had been brought forward that lichens were partnerships between fungi and photo-synthetic partners – and she was batting on the wrong side.”
Still, by March 1897, the Royal Botanic Gardens mycologist Massee had gained enough confidence in Potter’s spore germination work to agree for her to submit her paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae”, to the Linnean Society.
The Society did not admit its first female fellow until 1905 – and as only fellows could attend meetings, Potter was not present when her paper was discussed. She later noted that it was “well received” but that members said it required more work.
Potter withdrew the paper, presumably to make amendments. But it was never published. No copy exists today.
Potter’s attempts to get her ideas on fungi taken seriously by leading scientists ended by the autumn of 1897. This has led some to claim that she was an important scientist, stopped in her tracks by stuffy Victorian elitists.
Today, however, most experts agree that closer readings of Potter’s diary suggest such claims are exaggerated.
The reality is she was dabbling as an enthusiastic amateur rather than doing anything ground-breaking – Nicholas Money
“Beatrix Potter’s work with a microscope has been hyped and a whole mythology has been built up around it, but the reality is she was dabbling as an enthusiastic amateur rather than doing anything ground-breaking,” Money said. “Her paintings of fungi and their fruit bodies were beautiful and scientifically accurate – and were later used to help identify mushrooms. And in the end, that may have been her important contribution to mycology.”
Lear, too, acknowledges that she gave Potter’s view on lichens more credit than was due. “My claims for Potter’s acceptance of symbiosis are both overstated and incorrect,” Lear said.
But, she added, “She should get credit for her openness to speculation, her careful and thoughtful observation of several species of lichens and algae and her courage as a female to speculate in a professional field.”
She should get credit for her courage as a female to speculate in a professional field – Lear
It is worth noting that although Potter was keen on studying fungi, there is no evidence she wanted to earn a living as a scientist. Her journal suggests she was motivated more by seeking something to occupy her intelligence and curiosity, make a little money and assert her independence – all at a time when most avenues for women were barred.
In that, of course, she succeeded: The Tale of Peter Rabbit alone has been translated into more than 45 languages and sold 45 million copies. More than 250 million copies of her books have been sold worldwide.
“Beatrix Potter was an intelligent woman who was bored and wanted something to do that would keep her busy and earn her a little money,” Lear said. “I don’t think she had any ambition to be a mycologist. She’s already been successful in selling some of her art work and when the research paper she wrote needed more work, she lost interest in favour of something that was more suited to what she was after.”
Call it the Curious Tale of Beatrix Potter and the Mushrooms.