Submitted to: American Entomologist
Publication Type: Book / Chapter
Publication Acceptance Date: December 19, 2007
Publication Date: June 22, 2009
Citation: Weber, Donald C. 2009. Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the secrets of metamorphosis. American Entomologist 55(2): 122-123.
The article reviews a new biography of the German artist and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), as told completely and engagingly by popular nonfiction author Kim Todd. In spite of many hurdles, Merian came to be one of the premier entomologists of her time, the first insect ecologist in the sense that she focused her inquiries on the relationship between insects and their food plants and natural enemies. Chrysalis, the book’s title, reflects not only the fundamental process of complete metamorphosis which she studied; it also serves as an apt metaphor both for her life and for her legacy. Her public and publishing life occupied two distinct phases. The first one began with her sketches at the age of thirteen in Frankfurt, culminating in the publication of her two-volume set Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung (The Caterpillars’ Wondrous Metamorphosis, 1679-1683). Following a period of religious introspection, she made startling and radical decision to undertake a voyage to Surinam – a perilous voyage whose purpose was exclusively scientific. The eventual result of this perilous voyage was her master work, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Before Humboldt, Wallace, or Darwin, she brought back in vivid watercolor the wonders of the New World, the Tropics, and their canopies: wonders so unbelievable that many did not believe. During her life and shortly thereafter, she was known in scientific circles as a dedicated and accomplished scientist, based on her pioneering works on both European and Neotropical fauna. As science developed into the 19th century, the patriarchy of professionals who formed the bulk of the scientific community looked down on so-called amateurs, and especially on women, as dabblers who offered nothing creditable to build upon. This was a dark period for her legacy, which happily has come to an end. Merian’s contributions are again gaining appropriate recognition in a modern context. Todd’s biography does not end with Merian’s death, but rather with the modern resurrection of her achievements, and also in tracking her scientific influence which continues to this day.