Monday, July 20, 2015

A Tale of Two Women Botanists


These are beautiful botany drawings by Dutch artist Maria Sybilla Merian from 1730. During the Scientific Enlightenment women were kept out of the new field of science in general  - with the exception of Botany.

After all, looking at flowers was a genteel thing and one didn't need a formal education to document what they looked like, just an observant nature and some drawing ability. (And if women could embroider flowers, they could certainly draw them.) The importance of Merian's work: she went to Surinam to document 'new' species.

I've written a great deal on this blog about McGill Botanist, Carrie Derick, who happened to be a Canadian feminist pioneer and the first female full professor in Canada.

Just recently, I completed a final draft of Furies Cross the Mersey, a book about Carrie Derick and her role as lead suffragist in Montreal in the 1911/1913 era. I include a note about Merian. I have Derick owning two prints of hers, framed in her living room. That is made up, but I got most of my info from Margaret Gillett's little book on Derick, No Fool She.

Carrie Derick was President of the Montreal Council of Women from 1909-1912 (the era of my e-book Threshold Girl) and the President of the Montreal Suffrage Association, founded in 1913 and dissolved in 1919.

Also in 1912 she was appointed Full Time Professor of Botany at McGill, a 'courtesy' appointment as she had been turned down for the position of Chair of Botany, even though she had been acting as de facto Chair for 3 years.

She continued to be education chair of the National Council of Women - and she used her authority as a Botanist to promote eugenics, which is why there will never be a Heritage Minute about her, although there is a street named after her in Verdun. No question, some of her beliefs were quite scary: you can read about them in Gazette articles from the era. She gave lots of talks on the subject.

Still, it must be understood. Eugenics, in 1910 was very chic. 

McGill was eugenics central (according to the Oxford book of Eugenics), The Ontario Hygiene Reader for high schoolers had a chapter on eugenics, or choosing your mate well, and the 1912 Child Welfare Exhibit in Montreal (mounted by top citizens, English and French, and attracting hundreds of thousands of people) had a eugenics display. The NY exhibition, held a year before, made no mention of eugenics, but many of the smaller US exhibitions did, the Pittsburg Exhibition in 1913 calling itself a child welfare and eugenics exhibition. 

Google News archives shows that eugenics was discussed through the 20's into the early 30's and then stopped. I wonder why? (Well, we know why.)

There were two types of eugenics, positive, where a young person was told to choose his/her mate well, or negative, removing 'defectives' from the gene pool.. and of course the definition of defectives was left to the individual.

One funny article from the thirties I found has a lady decrying that young girls only are looking for a guy with a nice car and a 'life of the party' face and not worrying about genes.

There's a book of Derick's posted on archive.org... a collection of Botany articles published in the Montreal Herald in 1900.

The Nicholsons of Richmond read the Herald, so it is very likely that Edith Nicholson 'met' Carrie Derick through her work long before she met her in the flesh at McGill in the 1920's. In my story, their paths cross at suffrage meetings.






By C.M.D!!! Did they not want to say this was written by a woman?? I think so. The preface says these drawings are from the pen 'of a well known botanist of high standing'...No wonder Derick got into feminist activism, as the case of 18th century  Merian reveals, women Botanists were not such an unusual thing.



              Carrie Derick writes a note to French Canadian suffragist Marie Gerin Lajoie on McGill Botany Paper

                                    This is a more scientific paper, autographed by Derick.


 A drawing from Flora Nicholson's 1911/12 Nature Diary for Macdonald Teachers College. I don't know if she ever met Derick (through her sister Edith) but in my e-book Threshold Girl I have her attend a meeting of the Montreal Council of Women.

Flora refers to the dowdy Miss Derick as the woman who studies flowers but does not wear them on her hat.


More of Merian's work.