Mann Library Exhibitions

May 6, 2019

Mann Exhibit ‘Unturned Leaves’ Showcases the Work of Early Female Scientists

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Even though significant progress has already been made in recognizing women’s achievements in scientific fields, there are still plenty of unacknowledged achievements of female scientists that have yet to be uncovered — especially in the field of mycology, the study of fungi.

For the last few weeks, the “Unturned Leaves: Early Women in Botanical Illustration” exhibit in Mann Library has been showcasing the work of women such as M.F. Lewis and Sarah Price, whose contributions to identifying different fungi through illustrations remain unrecognized.

During the 19th century, it was common for women to be pushed toward “more delicate pursuits” rather than the formal study of science, according to Eveline Ferretti, public programs and communication administrator at Mann Library. As a result, many women provided the illustrations of plants that made the botanical texts of the 18th and 19th centuries the vivid, intricate, and scientifically accurate works that they are.

“The starting point for this exhibit is a recognition of the fact that women have contributed much to the advancement of scientific knowledge, yet their contributions have been poorly documented, often overlooked, and greatly under-celebrated,” Ferretti said.

Ferreti said she hopes that the exhibit can help tell a “better ‘herstory’ of science, particularly as it relates to the study of the natural world.”

Though the paintings are rich with intricacies, there is still a lot that remains unknown about M.F. Lewis and other female illustrators such as Sarah Price, etc. But despite lack of recognition, there were some female illustrators that did get their work formally published.

For example, Sarah Price, one of M.F. Lewis’ contemporaries, did manage to formally publish her illustrations of 72 mushroom species as a slim two volume set through the help of subscribers. Many of these supporters on her subscriber list were also female.

“[Other women such as] Sarah Drake produced some fungus illustrations in her career, and certainly some of her more prolific contemporaries like Mrs. Edward Bury and Augusta Innes Withers are likely to have. What makes Sarah Price and M.F. Lewis stand out is that they were the ones doing the field work as well, not producing drawings for hire,” Karl Rozyn, Mann exhibits curator said.

However, there are substantial challenges in uncovering the intricacies surrounding the history of scientific discovery in botany, Rozyn said.

“The most difficult aspect for me in curating ‘Unturned Leaves’ was the fact that so little was recorded of the women involved,” Rozyn said. “It’s possible to dig through [the] archives to find scraps, but the published record focuses very heavily on the people whose works were published widely or were fellows in various horticultural societies.”

Despite the challenges, Rozyn said there is still a glimmer of hope to uncover more accomplishments of female illustrators.

“Hopefully there will be many science ‘herstorians’ of the future who will take the time to find and explore the archival record to fill in the blanks for a new understanding of how science has progressed over time,” Rozyn said. “We hope they make good use of reference librarians who stand at the ready to help them dig this story out.”