Beatrix Potter and the History of Mold

Ninety-five years ago, congress ratified the 20th amendment and gave women nationwide the right to vote. The White House declared August 26 “Women’s Equality Day” in commemoration, and we at Free Mold Check didn’t feel we could pass up the opportunity to celebrate women (and mold) to commemorate such an important marker in this ongoing journey toward equality.

As the iconic Liz Lemon once said, “I can have it all!” Beatrix Potter, best known as an illustrator and author of children’s literature such as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck, undeniably lived Liz Lemon’s feminist mantra to the fullest. While developing her stories and drawings for children, Potter also studied a variety of molds and fungi growing around her in the Lake District of northern England.

Potter began her biological studies by simply drawing the molds and fungi she saw near her home. She was the first person in Britain to propose that lichens are symbiotic life forms, and she also cultivated experiments in her kitchen and drew detailed observations of mold characteristics. Potter had no formal scientific training or education whatsoever, but she pursued her interests without allowing cultural expectations for women to limit her passions. She was an innovative fungal scientist at a time when society discouraged women from even studying biology.

Rather than stay home and host tea parties like many of her peers, Potter disappeared into the woods near her home and to draw the fungi she saw. At 26 years old, she began writing fellow amateur biologist Charles McIntosh, who shared her interest in mold and fungi. He sent her hundreds of samples of fungi, mosses, molds, and spores, which she then extensively examined and drew in minute detail.

After myriad drawings, Potter came to the conclusion that fungi and algae had a symbiotic relationship. She collected fungal spores and algal cells in her kitchen and drew her observations of how the two joined to form one organism. Fungal biologists Simon Schwendener and Anton de Bary took advantage of their established reputations in biologist circles to help Potter and her theories gain the attention they deserved.

Though Potter’s theories were mostly dismissed during her lifetime in the nineteenth century, the British Mycological Society rediscovered her observational drawings in the early 1990s and recommitted itself to the acknowledgment of women’s roles in the history of mold research. Potter’s drawings included basidiospores, fungal life cycles, and the first record of the fungus Tremella simplex – the likes of which had never been seen in the United Kingdom before. The BMS claims that the scientific value of her drawings wasn’t recognized for another forty years.

Women were not allowed to attend meetings of the Linnean Society of London during Potter’s lifetime. George Massee, another British botanist, advocated her paper (the only one she ever wrote) for her at the meeting, but it was approved for publication on the conditions that Potter had to conduct much more research.

Though frustrated by the blatant sexism the Society expressed, Potter continued her botanical studies until her success in children’s literature and illustration distracted her from scientific fields of study. Her original 1897 manuscript was never published. Her success in the more traditionally feminine practices of writing and drawing clearly overshadowed her botanical work.

Sadly, not enough has changed since Potter’s lifetime. Men still outnumber women in botanical research occupations, and mold remediation technicians identify as male more often than not. Women’s Equality Day serves as a great reminder that women and mold research still have bit of catching up to do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *