‘Women’s Weeds’ Research Journal — Spotlight: Beatrix Potter Takes on the Botanical Boys Club

“I fancy he may be something of a misogynist.” 
— Beatrix Potter, in her journal December 1896, about Mr Thiselton-Dyer Director, Kew

Several years before Miss Helen Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) became the beloved children’s author whom we all treasure, creating the world of Peter Rabbit and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, she had much smaller lifeforms on her mind: fungi. And there was a man (or rather, several men) standing in her way to mycorrhizal greatness. One of whom was no less of a personage than William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

It all began with her illustrations. She was a very talented artist, in both sketch and watercolour, but alongside this ability she also had the gift of very close observation. Beatrix sketched and painted a variety of fungi that she found in the Lake District in England and in Scotland. As her documentation became more detailed, she began to be fascinated by how fungi reproduced. By the autumn and winter of 1895, when she was 29 years old, she was spending an increasing amount of time drawing fungi under a microscope. She became convinced that she could germinate some spores herself. She wanted to study the environment in which they germinated, discover whether or not conditions were the same for each species, what the spawn of each consisted of, and whether or not she could reproduce it more than once. This is where her hobby graduated from observation to experimentation. 

Beatrix Potter

Being young and inexperienced, she thought it best to go straight to the source. She planned to march right up to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to speak with someone about the classification of some fungi that puzzled her. She wasn’t impressed with the Keeper of Botany at the museum, she wanted to go straight to George Massee, Principal Assistant of the Herbarium. But before she could make an appointment with Massee, she first had to be acknowledged by Kew itself—this meant having a recommendation from an established scientist, and applying for a student ticket, and then requesting an audience with Massee. 

Beatrix spent many years researching and sketching at the Natural History Museum, but she didn’t think (or what is more likely, didn’t dare) ask anyone there to recommend her. She remarked in her journal, “I wonder why I never seem to know people. It makes one wonder whether one is presentable.” Beatrix was homeschooled and being a keen naturalist is a rather solitary hobby. Her choice of avocation may have been borne of natural inclination, or simply the crushing shyness of having not much ever been in the society of people. Whatever the reason, the result is that Beatrix spent her youth in solitary pursuits; and by the time she was painting fungi, she was in her late 20s, still living with her parents, and already considered a ‘spinster’. 

Seeking a sponsor closer to home to recommend her to Kew, the most logical person to petition would have of course been her distinguished uncle, the renowned chemist and Vice Chancellor to London University (now UCL), Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe. Or to Beatrix, just ‘Uncle Harry’. 

Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe, ‘Uncle Harry’

Uncle Harry had taken an early interest in Beatrix’s talent for painting and had helped her sell holiday cards when she was younger. She asked her uncle several times to please secure her a student ticket for Kew, but he was always too busy to do anything about it. By February of 1896, busy Uncle Harry was laid up with gout, and the industrious Beatrix pounced. Her persistence paid off (or so she thought) when she gleefully wrote in her journal: “Says I, he will give me a note to Mr Thiselton-Dyer!” — but once again, he forgot. 

Exidia glandulosa — Often referred to as Black Witch’s (or Witches’) Butter

The following month, Uncle Harry invited the Potter family to come visit him in his country home, Woodcote. Beatrix was excited because she had never been invited before, While at Woodcote, Beatrix found the exotic-looking black fungus known as ‘witches’ butter’ (Exidia glandulosa) on a dead piece of log encrusted with lichens, and made a painting of it. In this congenial setting she also made several microscopic drawings, and enjoyed discussing microscopy with Uncle Harry, who advised her on laboratory techniques and gave her equipment not easily available to the amateur. It was a marvellously instructive visit; and Woodcote was so different from her urban life on Russell Square in London. Beatrix very much looked forward to visiting Woodcote again. However, an introduction to Kew was still not forthcoming…

Finally, in May, Uncle Harry had a “sudden fit of kindness and conscience’”and proposed taking Beatrix to Kew himself the following day to see the director. The next morning the two set out by train for Kew, where Beatrix intended to both get a student research ticket and to show the director her drawings. These two steps did not seem lightyears apart in Beatrix’s mind, as perhaps they ought to have been! 

First a bit about Kew…

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, or ‘Imperial Kew’, as it was known in some Victorian circles, was not then a garden where the public was welcome to stroll the winding paths of an historical landscape. Indeed, the public was barely tolerated within Kew’s gates, and admitted only on specific days and for limited times. Kew was then, and is now, primarily a scientific institution dedicated to research and conservation. It was also then, but is no longer, an enthusiastic agent of imperial expansion, central to discovering and developing the natural resources of the Empire. Kew’s directors, since its founding in 1841, understood their mission was not only to further botanical research, but also to shape commerce through the acquisition and propagation of economically viable crops. Kew’s pragmatic usefulness to the Empire set it apart from other centres of research. The professionals at Kew moved in a different political orbit from the others. And the Director of this politically charged institution was formidable. William Turner Thiselton-Dyer assumed the directorship of Kew in 1885. 

William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, Director, Kew, 1899

His ambition was nothing less than to reorder the British system of colonial botanic gardens and to make Kew the centre of the new botany in service to a reinvigorated imperialism. He was a slight man, with a thin face, prematurely white hair, with a moustache and goatee, and the manner of a martinet. Very much an authoritarian and an autocrat in style and personality, he favoured uniforms for the staff as a mark of professional status and a means of imposing order. He even had an inspector’s uniform made for himself with epaulettes, gold buttons, and a gold-crested military-style hat. […] The garden staff included three women, recruited under pressure in 1896 from the Horticultural College for Women at Swanley in Kent, who were compelled to labour in brown knickerbockers, woollen stockings, waistcoat, jacket, and peaked cap, a costume guaranteed not to distract their male colleagues. (Lear 2007 104) 

Pushing for a meeting with this man was never going to go well. Uncle Harry did introduce her, but the Director was not impressed, nor were the other botanists on his staff, but she did get her student ticket. 

Refining her research practice

The Potter family spent the summer of 1896, when Beatrix turned 30, at the large country house of Lakefield on the shore of Esthwaite Water, just outside the village of Near Sawyer. Beatrix was successfully germinating spores by late August with the confidence of the expert that she now was. She explained her theories to Uncle Harry, trying to impress upon him the novelty of what she had discovered and asking advice for how to present these findings to the botanists at Kew. He suggested that she read the literature already out there on the subject—and completely—before she approached anyone at Kew with “new” findings. 

George Massee, Principal Assistant of the Herbarium, Kew

She contacted the Herbarium’s Principal Assistant, George Massee, about what to do next. She received a reply two days later referring her to Oskar Brefeld’s daunting 12-volume study, Botanische Untersuchungen über Schimmelpilze (1872-96). Beatrix knew about Brefeld’s work, but had not read it. However, Beatrix was also fluent in German, so she thought, yeah, sure, why not. I’ll read a 12-volume study on German botany in the original German. 

But before she could embark on this massive scholastic undertaking, she went the very next day to see Massee and found he actually knew very little about this particular subject and was kind of just fobbing her off. He admitted that he actually didn’t think Brefeld had grown this particular mushroom mould. Despite not knowing much about her specific area of research, Massee disputed her conclusions anyway based on the fact she was an amateur working in contaminated conditions without a laboratory. But her passion for her spore discovery started to crack her cage of shyness, she dismissed his concerns then and there and even confessed in her journal that she “contradicted him badly”. 

But Massee was right, her home kitchen was not the environment at all to conduct proper experiments. In an effort to fix this, she called at the Society of Preventative Medicine in Bloomsbury to ask for help from the chemist Joseph Lunt. An assistant there showed her the best techniques for making sterile slides and probably suggested the nutrient formula which she subsequently used as a medium. It was then that Uncle Harry urged her to write up her findings as a paper for the botanists at Kew. A week later, she was ready. Her uncle had secured her an official meeting and she was going to now present her findings to Director Thiselton-Dyer in person. 

Things go a bit awry

The first time she had come to meet the director of Kew, she was escorted by her prominent uncle; this time she was going by herself. On a frosty morning on December 3rd, 1896, she made her way to Kew. She waited for 15 minutes with growing fear and alarm, she felt that people were staring at her, and watching the surly Thiselton-Dyer through a window, she was “so seized with shyness” that she “bolted”.

Either at the aborted meeting, or a couple days later, no one knows for sure, Beatrix left her paper for Thiselton-Dyer’s perusal without her attendance. With it, she attached a cover letter. The letter was disastrous.

In the very unfortunately worded letter, she slighted Massee, appealed over his head to the Director, and challenged science at Kew. She said her uncle was “satisfied” with her botanical slides and that she (an amateur) contradicted Massee (the professional). As if this were not offence enough, the letter impugns English botanists by suggesting that the Germans will inevitably prove her theory correct. The professionals at Kew got the smackdown from an amateur in a kitchen. They were not particularly pleased. 

Thiselton-Dyer didn’t respond to Beatrix; instead he sent a letter directly to Uncle Harry. He refused to let Beatrix read the letter on the grounds that the Director was “a little rough spoken” and was being “rude and stupid”. It seems this might have been Uncle Harry’s war and not Beatrix’s. It’s rather baffling to believe that such a shy woman, who wouldn’t even approach scholars at the Natural History Museum for an invitation to Kew, would suddenly take on the Director himself without much prodding and ruffling by Uncle Harry. But another way of reading this sudden change in demeanour might be that Uncle Harry had simply been an emboldening influence on her, and it was a new fiery Beatrix who did indeed want to take on the Botanical establishment herself.

Despite this rather acrimonious start, just five days after her initial failed meeting, on December 7th Beatrix  marched back to Kew again, this time screwing up her courage to stay as long as it took. She was again kept waiting, but this time she passed the time this time by reading the newspaper and not looking around her at the clerks at work. Finally Thiselton-Dyer asked her to enter, he was “in a great hurry”, clearly ready to get rid of her as soon as possible, but she was going to have her say this time. “I was not shy, not at all”, she wrote. “I had it up and down with him. His line was on the outside edge of civil, but I took it philosophically.”

Dismissing her drawings without even looking at them, he tried to pass her off to Henry Marshall Ward, the newly appointed Professor of Botany at Cambridge. Beatrix was furious, “I informed him that it would all be in the books in 10 years, whether or no, and departed giggling.”

Fired up after this bold rebuttal, Beatrix next set her sights on the Herbarium ready to take on Massee—only to find to her astonishment that he “had come round altogether and was prepared to believe my new thing, including [the hybridisation theory] of Lichens”. This was an about face indeed. He shared with Beatrix some of the difficulties he was experiencing in his experiments, and she in turn shared some of her slides with him. When Massee succeeded in sprouting several of her spores, he conceded that her results were probably more accurate than he initially thought. Despite their prickly beginnings, Massee appears to have become her champion. When Uncle Harry thought it was time to approach the prestigious Linnean Society, it was Massee who submitted her paper to the general secretary, who recorded it on 18 March 1897. 

Membership of the Linnean Society was exclusively male, and only men were allowed to attend meetings, to have access to the library, or to subscribe to Society publications. Although the question of admission of women was raised periodically, it had almost no support until 1905, when women were reluctantly allowed to become members. 

The general membership of the Society met 1 April 1897—yes, April Fool’s Day—to discuss her paper  ‘On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae’ (by Miss Helen B. Potter) Her paper was “well-received”, according to Massee, but the Society felt that it “needed more work” before it could be published. Beatrix withdrew her paper from further consideration. 

By the autumn of that year, all records concerning her research (journal entries, letters, official submissions) stopped. There is no evidence as to how much longer Beatrix worked on the problem of germination, when she last used her ticket at Kew, or if she had further association with Massee. Most intriguing of all, her paper ‘On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae’—either as it was presented or any later revision—has never been found. 

A dark age for women in science 

During the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, the linkage between scientific activities and polite activities had enabled women to find a path in science. In these early days of polite botanical culture, women had a relatively smooth path into botanical research. Women had botanical conversations in print and in person and claimed botany as a resource for themselves. This was the case especially from the 1780s until roughly 60 years later, when academic botany set itself at a remove from popular pursuits and specialised science endeavoured to supplant polite science culture. 

Later, that same linkage led influential practitioners to push women out, as cultural connections between botany and femininity provoked anxieties among some male botanists and some male popular science writers concerned to construct a botanical science. 

The professionalising turn within science culture, indeed within 19th-century culture more generally, marginalised many activities and values associated with women. After the 1860s, the locus of learning shifted from home-based and mother-centred education to laboratory-based school science. Pedagogical authority changed from a mentorial mother to a formal schoolteacher in a public institution, and examination systems institutionalised a certain kind of knowledge, marginalising the autodidact. (Shteir 1996 235) 

The Linnean Society did not reject Potter’s paper because they never seriously considered it. She was too insignificant a player for the botanical establishment to be concerned with. The establishment scientists simply discounted her research and ignored her conclusions. Beatrix attempted to obtain a hearing for her scientific observations at time when the line of demarcation between amateur and professional scientist was newly drawn and jealously defended. She was not singled out for mistreatment. Her experience was the norm, not the exception.

However, Beatrix eventually did gain vindication. The botanical establishment was proven wrong. A century later, the Linnean Society issued an official “apology” for the sins of their historic sexism.

Beatrix’s conclusions about the symbiotic nature of lichens and the hybridisation of fungi would later be proved and accepted. Her watercolours are considered so accurate that modern mycologists still refer to them today to identify fungi. And her drawings did eventually get published, in a book by an expert mycologist in 1967. 

If Beatrix had defined a goal for her life by 1898 it was essentially what it had always been: to find something useful to do with her talents, and to gain a measure of economic and personal independence. She explored scientific illustration and research and found that, however intriguing, it could not satisfy that end. Pragmatic as she was, she moved on to her next project—and as we all know, that went rather well.

While we know her today as our beloved children’s author, it’s heartening to know that she was—at least eventually!—acknowledged for being more than one thing. Beatrix Potter was a brilliant and dynamic woman, who’s talents spanned several normally disparate disciplines. And she did this at a time when even having the audacity to seek a meeting to discuss her work was fraught with political drama. 

If there’s one take away form Beatrix’s story, for me, it would be to never let yourself be defined by any one thing—even if you’re very good at it! We are all more than one thing. Never stop exploring all sides of yourself and what you can offer as your legacy to the world. 

For an in-person experience to learn more about Beatrix Potter, there is currently an exhibition on at the V&A, running from now until February 2023 — ‘Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature’

Sources and further reading…

Jay, Eileen; Noble, Mary; Hobbs, Anne Stevenson (editors), A Victorian Naturalist: Beatrix Potter’s Drawings from the Armitt Collection, (London: Warne). 1992. Book.  

Lear, Linda, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 2007. Book. 

Linder, Leslie, The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897, (London: Warne) 1966. Book

Shteir, Ann B., Cultivating Women Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England 1760-1860, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press), 1996. Book. 

Taylor, Judy, Beatrix Potter’s Letters, (London: Warne) 1989. Book. 

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