Throughout history, many women have made significant contributions in a variety of scientific fields. As a result, these daring and curious women’s thirst for knowledge has provided the scientific community with a deeper understanding of the natural world. This is true of botany, as well. In honor of Women’s History Month, here’s a look at the inspiring female botanists who’ve contributed to the study of plants:
What do you do when you want to travel the world but it’s the 18th century and you’re a woman? Dress up like a man, of course! That’s exactly what French adventurer and botanist Jeanne Baret did. A successful herbalist in her hometown, where she collected plants for medicine, Baret and her lover, also a botanist, hatched a plan to travel the world and continue their studies. Philibert Commerson, Baret’s love interest, applied to be a naturalist aboard a ship as part of a program financed by the French government. He was accepted and took Baret, dressed as a man, with him as his assistant. Over the course of their voyage, Baret was able to continue recording and studying new plants and is partially credited for discovering the bougainville flower while traveling. What’s more, Baret is considered the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
By comparison, Katherine Esau had a more traditional career. Though she experienced upheaval in her early life, her work was, by all accounts, exceptional. Esau was born in 1898 in Ukraine, which was then a part of Russia, and later moved to Germany to flee the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1922, her family moved again to the U.S. where she earned her doctorate in botany. She remained at the University of California Davis to teach as a faculty member where she focused primarily on agriculture and diseases that affect crops. In 1954, Esau published her book “Plant Anatomy,” which became a standard text for those in the field. Not only that, but Esau was the sixth woman added to the National Academy of Sciences, which occurred in 1957. Then, in 1989, then-President George H. Bush presented her with the National Medal of Science for her pioneering research and contributions to the botanical sciences.
A British award-winning botanist, Agnes Arbor was first introduced to the study of plants by her science teacher. The initial interest would become a lifelong passion. In fact, in 1894, when she was just 15 years old, Arbor published botanical research in her school magazine, a move that earned her a scholarship. After completing her degrees, she published several books based on her research and findings. Among them was “Monocotyledons: A Morphological Study,” which is considered an important text in the field. Arbor became the first woman Fellow of the Royal Society in 1946 and earned a Gold Medal from the Linnean Society of London two years later.
Each of these women and many more not featured broke ground in their respective fields. This month, enjoy beautiful flowers at home and think of all the amazing people who had a hand in their development.