Today we celebrate the life and work of scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian.
Merian was one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly. Merian collected and observed live insects and created detailed drawings. In her time insects still had a reputation as “beasts of the devil” and the process of metamorphosis was largely unknown. While a handful of scholars had published empirical information on the insect, moth and butterfly life cycle, the widespread contemporary believe was that they were “born of mud” by spontaneous generation. Merian documented evidence to the contrary and described the life cycles of 186 insect species.
Merian had started to collect insects as an adolescent and kept a study journal. Aged 13 she raised silk worms and other insects. Her interest turned to moths and butterflies, which she collected and studied. While living in Nuremberg and Frankfurt Merian would travel to the surrounding countryside to search for caterpillar larvae. She recorded their food plants, the timing of their metamorphoses, and noted the behaviour she observed. It was not unusual for naturalists to illustrate their own research, but Merian was among the first professionally trained artists to illustrate her lifelong studies and observations.