A Scientific Foremother

I was deeply disturbed by the entry on Beatrix Potter in the "Notebook" section of The Scientist on Oct. 26, 1992 [page 4]. The article used words like "gruesome" and "bizarre" to describe Potter's childhood interest in science, while giving no indication that Potter was an important scientist in her era. Her work on the symbiotic nature of lichen--the first to be published in the British isles--was read before the Linnaean Society of London by her uncle. She could neither deliver the work herse

Anne Fausto-sterling
Jan 10, 1993

I was deeply disturbed by the entry on Beatrix Potter in the "Notebook" section of The Scientist on Oct. 26, 1992 [page 4]. The article used words like "gruesome" and "bizarre" to describe Potter's childhood interest in science, while giving no indication that Potter was an important scientist in her era. Her work on the symbiotic nature of lichen--the first to be published in the British isles--was read before the Linnaean Society of London by her uncle. She could neither deliver the work herself nor attend the meeting at which it was discussed because women were unwelcome.

Her presence as a researcher in the British Museum was also unwelcome, and eventually she threw in the towel and wrote children's books. This did not prevent her from cataloging the fungi of the British isles; many of her exquisite drawings are still today the type drawings used for taxonomic purposes. In her later years she became a sheep farmer and contributed significant work on the genetics of sheep breeding. Thus, despite the obstacles, she maintained a lifelong interest in science and scientific investigation.

If a young male child who later went on to become an important figure had shown an early interest in science by assembling and drawing animal skeletons, we would write of his early signs of genius. Instead, the author of this "news" item describes Potter as a bit abnormal. When will mainstream science publications begin honoring our scientific foremothers just as our scientific forefathers are honored?

ANNE FAUSTO-STERLING
Professor of Medical Science
Brown University
Providence, R.I.