Project creator(s)

By a Lady: Women and Natural History in the Americas, 1650-1830 (JCB Digital Catalogue)

Insects in the Americas

le Clerc



  1. Virginia Ferrar (1627?-1688) was an English bookbinder and  sericulturalist (someone who cultivates silkworms). She was named after  the colony of Virginia; her father, John Ferrar, had been deputy of the  Virginia Company of London, which sought to establish colonial  settlements in North America. John Ferrar aimed to stimulate a silk  industry in Virginia, and so he encouraged Virginia to the cultivation  of silkworms from their family home in England. Virginia also  corresponded with Virginians, some of whom would send her silkworm  cocoons from the colony. The JCB holds several books related to Virginia  and John Ferrar’s work on silkworms. These books provide a fascinating  glimpse into the life of a seventeenth-century female sericulturalist  and her participation in transatlantic networks of knowledge exchange.

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[Winding silk from the cocoons]


  1. In the 16th and 17th centuries Europeans began to turn to insects as a  new field of study. This was further stimulated by the work of, among  others, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), who used the microscope to  study the morphology of insects, and Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), who  made important discoveries on the anatomy of insects. European interest  in insects also grew because of the increasing number of travellers  bringing back zoological specimens from overseas voyages of exploration.  The JCB houses the works of Virginia Ferrar (1627?-1688) and Maria  Sibylla Merian (1747-1717), two European women whose captivating work on  insects both reflected and shaped this unfolding field.

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Aleander de Lavaux

Algemeene Kaart van de Colonie of Provintie van Suriname, ...


  1. Maria Sibylla Merian  (1647-1717) was a  German-born naturalist  and  scientific illustrator.  Merian held a lifelong  fascination for  insects.  From the age of thirteen,  she collected and bred   caterpillars, studying  their behavior and  transformation into  moths  and butterflies. In 1699, she travelled to  the Dutch colony of   Suriname with her  daughter to further her  entomological research.  For  two years Merian travelled, collected, studied, and sketched, until ill  health forced her to return to Europe.

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[Orange tree and insects]


  1. She  published the results of her research in the Metamorphosis Insectorum  Surinamensium (1705), which contained 60 copperplates and accompanying  descriptions of the insects and plants of Surinam. Many of the insects  she described were new to Europeans, and she was the first naturalist to  depict insects and their host plants together in one composition,  making this one of the earliest tropical ecology studies. She is still  admired today for her scientific contributions and the exceptional  artistic quality of her work.

    p. 1

J Mulder

Battattes albicantes


  1. The 1705 edition of the Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium was  published in both Latin and in Dutch. It was reprinted in 1719, two  years after Merian’s death. The JCB holds three copies of the 1719  edition, two in Latin and one in Dutch. This edition contains 12  additional engraved plates. Merian’s illustrations of butterflies and  moths were unique for capturing the different stages of their  metamorphosis – caterpillar, cocoon, butterfly or moth – in a single  image. Even after 300 years, the eye for detail (look at how the  caterpillar has been chewing on the leaves!) and the vibrancy of the  colours are breath-taking.

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Seba, Albert, Merian, Maria Sibylla, Commelin, Caspar

Mariae Sibillae Merian Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus ins...


  1. In a counterproof, the outlines of the image are softer and there are no  platemarks on the page, which makes it look more like an original  watercolour.

    p. 17

The Flora and Fauna of the Caribbean

López, Juan, 1765-1825

Carta de la isla de la Antigua reducida y gravada por D. Juan Lopez, Pen...


  1. In a section titled ‘Sketch of the Natural History of Antigua’, Riddell  provides a scientific description of the plants on that island. She used  the classification system of Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus to  identify and categorize her findings. Listed in alphabetical order,  entries contain extensive information on the appearance, flavour, and  usefulness of a wide variety of plants. She probably gained a lot of  botanical information from discussions with local inhabitants. With the  publication of her book this local knowledge was mediated to European  audiences.

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  2. The  ‘Sketch of the Natural History of Antigua’ also includes a scientific  description of the different kinds of animals she encountered there.  Since zoology was largely considered to be a male domain in this period,  Riddell was challenging traditional gender roles with the publication  of her work. She based her zoological descriptions not on Linnaeus’  classification system, as was customary at the time, but on that of  naturalist and fellow countryman Thomas Pennant.

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No. X. Carica papaya, or, Papaw tree; The female tree. The Leaves of thi...


  1. A collection of exotics, from the island of Antigua was printed in  London around 1797. Byam’s name does not appear in print; instead, the  author is indicated as ‘By a Lady’. The work has been ascribed to Byam  because the initials ‘L.B.’ were written in pencil on the title page of a  copy held by another collection. The book consists of four pages of  short botanical descriptions, followed by accompanying plates of  hand-colored engravings.

    p. 1

Avocado Pear.


  1. In 1800, Byam published A collection of fruits from the West Indies:  drawn and colored from nature, and, with permission, most humbly  dedicated to the Princess Elizabeth. This work consists of nine  hand-colored engraved plates depicting different fruits "drawn from  nature" and growing in the West Indies, such as the rose apple, avocado  pear, cashew, and granadilla. Each plate has a caption identifying the  plant.

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  2. There are striking similarities between Byam’s and Riddell’s  descriptions of Antiguan plants (replicated below). One possible reason  for this is that they both used the Linnaean scheme for naming plants.  Another explanation may be that Byam drew inspiration from Riddell’s  work, which had been published only a few years previously. Could the  two women have known each other? Riddell does record a visit to a Byam  family on Antigua in her Voyages, but there is no mention of a Lydia  Byam, and there is no other evidence to suggest that they crossed paths.  Nonetheless, it is intriguing to imagine these two women as forming  part of a larger female network of scientific exchange.

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Sketches of Latin America

Palmer, Pickett

Map of South America, exhibiting the political divisions of the republic...


  1. Marian Graham

    Maria Graham (née Dundas, later Lady Callcott, 1785-1842) was a British  traveller and author. Graham travelled to South America in 1821 with her  husband Thomas Graham, a Royal Navy captain whose job it was to protect  British mercantile interests along the South American coast. In April  1822 Thomas Graham died en route to Chile. Although offered the  opportunity to return home, Graham decided to stay in South America. She  travelled extensively in Chile and Brazil for the better part of two  years and continued her study of South American history, politics, and  natural history. Botany forms a significant part of her resulting  Journal of a Voyage to Brazil and Journal of a Residence in Chile, both  published with her own drawings in 1824.

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  2. In  1821 Graham and her husband visited Teneriffe on their way from England  to Brazil. Graham was keen to see the famous Dragon Tree at Oratava.  Previous generations of naturalists had marvelled at its exceptional  size and age. When Graham beholds the tree in 1821, however, it had  recently lost half its crown. Describing the tree as ‘a noble ruin’, she  writes:

    ‘In July, 1819, one half of its enormous crown fell: the wound is  plaistered up, the date of the misfortune marked on it, and as much  care is taken of the venerable vegetable as will ensure it for at least  another century’.

    Graham commemorated the tree in an illustration that she made on the  spot and which she had later engraved and published alongside her  written description.

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Lady Maria Callcott, Edward Francis Finden

Tree in a garden at Bahia.


  1. On a second trip to Brazil in 1824 – Graham had been asked to become  governess to the eldest daughter of Emperor Dom Pedro I and Empress  Maria Leopoldina of Brazil – Graham corresponded with botanist William  Jackson Hooker at Kew Gardens in London, sending him dried plant  specimens, seeds, and botanical drawings. In 1827 Hooker named a plant  genus after her in recognition of the seeds she had collected in Chile.  He later named the Escallonia Callcottiae (from Callcott, the name of  her second husband) after her.

    p. 1

Natural History in Translation

Azteck hieroglyphical MS. in the Vatican Library.


  1. Helen Maria Williams (1759-1827) was a British writer. She went to  France in 1790, where she would live for thirty years. In the years  following the French Revolution she reported on current affairs in  France in an eight-volume eyewitness account titled Letters from France  (1790-96). In 1810 Williams started working on an English edition of two  works on Spanish America by  the famous Prussian explorer and  naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. These works were published as  Researches Concerning the Institutions and Monuments of the Ancient  Inhabitants of America (1814) and the seven-volume Personal Narrative of  Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (1814-29). With  her translations Williams aimed to make the texts particularly  accessible to women and non-specialist audiences.

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Humboldt, Alexander von

Researches, concerning the institutions & monuments of the ancient inhab...


  1. This is the title page for the 1814 edition of Alexander von Humboldt’s  Researches Concerning the Institutions and Monuments of the Ancient  Inhabitants of America. Humboldt explored Spanish America with French  botanist Aimé Bonpland between 1799 and 1804, collecting botanical and  geological specimens, taking meteorological measurements, and climbing  active volcanoes. Originally published in French, Williams provided the  first English translation of this pioneering two-volume work. Although  the title of the book suggests a focus on antiquities, Humboldt also  included many observations on the flora and fauna of Mexico and Peru.  Williams skilfully translated plant and animal names into English,  demonstrating an expert understanding of the field.

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Dobrizhoffer, Martin, Coleridge, Sara Coleridge

An account of the Abipones, an equestrian people of Paraguay


  1. Sara Coleridge

    Sara Coleridge (1802-1852) was a writer, editor, and translator. She was  the daughter of the British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Between 1818 and 1822, Sara Coleridge worked on an English translation  of Martin Dobrizhoffer’s Historia de Abiponibus, originally published in  Latin in 1785. Dobrizhoffer was a Jesuit from Graz, Styria (now  Austria) who had spent eighteen years living among the indigenous  Abipone and Guarani peoples in Paraguay. In 1822, Coleridge published  the first English translation of this three-volume work under the title  An Account of the Abipones, an equestrian people of Paraguay.

    Dobrizhoffer devoted a large part of volume 1 of An Account of the  Abipones to describing the zoology and botany of Paraguay. Coleridge  painstakingly and accurately translated numerous plant and animal names  from the original Latin into English.

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Editorial Notes: Items Pending Integration

Project Creator(s)

  • The John Carter Brown Library