22 Mar 2016

Beatrix Potter – mycologist extraordinaire

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

2016 marks 150 years since the birth of a woman whose books have delighted generations of children (and their parents)

But there is far more to Beatrix Potter than Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck and Squirrel Nutkin.  She was an outstanding artist, a noted conservationist… and a significant scientist in the field of mycology (the study of fungi).

Born into a privileged household in July 1866, the young Beatrix was educated by governesses and mixed little with other children. She loved the countryside of Scotland and the Lake District where she, her brother and their parents spent holidays.  She painted the animals, plants and fungi she saw there and although her parents discouraged any academic – especially scientific – aspirations, they encouraged her painting, a suitable occupation for a Victorian young lady.

First drawn to fungi through painting them and capturing their delicate colours, she gained more scientific knowledge from respected amateur mycologist Charles McIntosh, who taught her taxonomy, and supplied her with live specimens. Curious as to how they reproduced, she began microscopic drawings of fungus spores and developed her own  theory of their germination. She corresponded with botanists at Kew, and convinced George Massee (first President of the British Mycological Society) of her ability to germinate spores and her theory of hybridisation.

Rejected by the then Director of Kew – as both a female and an amateur – she submitted her paper, On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae, to the Linnean Society in 1897. Massee introduced the paper on her behalf because as a woman she was not permitted to attend proceedings or read her paper.  Spotting some errors in her own work she withdrew the paper but carried on with her microscopic studies for some years. Her paper has recently been rediscovered, along with  her fine illustrations, and has now been properly evaluated by Professor Roy Watling; “Helen Beatrix Potter: Her interest in fungi” The Linnean: Newsletter and Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, January 2000. pp. 24–31

So where does the National Botanic Garden of Wales come into this story?

Roy Watling, now retired as Head of Mycology at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, has given us a large collection of books, papers and journals, which are currently being catalogued by two of our volunteers, and will soon be available to researchers, students and fungus enthusiasts –  a major addition to our now Mycology Library.  One thing that has immediately struck us is the large number of female mycologists throughout the 20th century – something we are sure Beatrix Potter would have been gratified to know.

Beatrix Potter donated her mycological and scientific drawings to the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside, where mycologists still refer to them to identify fungi, while a collection of her fungus paintings is in the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland. In 1967 many of her beautiful and accurate fungus drawings were included in Wayside & Woodland Fungi, by mycologist W.P.K. Findlay and in 1997 the Linnean Society finally issued her a posthumous apology for the sexism displayed in its handling of her research.

Kate Jones