Women in Historical SciArt: BHL Empowers Research on Women in Scientific Illustration

Michelle Marshall is an independent researcher and creator of Historical SciArt, a research initiative dedicated to women in historic scientific illustration. In this guest post, Marshall shares more about how BHL helps empower her research on women in science.

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In Fall 2014, I discovered the wonderful world of the Biodiversity Heritage Library. I serendipitously stumbled onto this natural history digital library through collaborations with the Smithsonian Transcription Center, and I joined a group of dedicated volunteers known as BHL citizen scientists, whose work includes researching and adding taxonomy to the scientific illustrations that BHL has uploaded to its account on Flickr.

Illustration of a bird with colors including green, orange, black, pink, purple, and white.

Himalayan Monal, Lophophorus impejanus, illustrated by Elizabeth Gould. Source: A century of birds from the Himalaya Mountains. 1831. Authored by John Gould and illustrated by Elizabeth Gould. Contributed in BHL from Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.

As I started to add scientific and common names to these images, I became curious about the artists. I easily discovered Maria Sibylla Merian and Elizabeth Gould, two of the more famous women natural history illustrators, but it was not until I found Roberta McIntosh that I started to scratch the surface of the multitude of women involved in this area of science.

Illustration of a green annelid worm.

King ragworm, Alitta virens, illustrated by Roberta McIntosh. Source: A monograph of the British marine annelids. v.2, pt.2 (1910). Authored by William Carmichael McIntosh and illustrated by several artists including Roberta McIntosh. Contributed in BHL from Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.

Roberta McIntosh (1843-1869) was the sister of William McIntosh, author of the multivolume publication, Monograph of the British Marine Annelids. She collected annelid specimens along with her brother, and he encouraged her to create scientific illustrations of these specimens for his work. While browsing through the monograph’s images, I noticed that there were other artists’ signatures, including one for A.H.W. In the Preface of this monograph, W. McIntosh identifies “A.H.W.” as “Miss Ada Walker” and also identifies “Miss Burnet of St. Andrews”.  I have been able to identify more information about Ada H. Walker, but Miss Burnet remains a mystery to be illuminated.

Illustration of a variety of annelid worms.

Illustration of marine annelids by Roberta McIntosh and Ada Hill Walker. Source: A monograph of the British marine annelids. v.4, pt.1 (1922). Authored by William Carmichael McIntosh and illustrated by several artists including Roberta McIntosh and Ada Hill Walker. Contributed in BHL from Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.

The discovery of these three women turned a spark into a flame as I realized that there are so many women still to be brought to light in this combined area of science, art, and history research. A few weeks later, I stumbled across Christine Jurine, a French artist who illustrated marine invertebrates and insects, and in the years that have passed, I have uncovered more and more. Cecile Pfulb Kastner is an accomplished French botanical illustrator, and I have written about my research into Kastner on my blog. And then there’s the sublime botanical art of Louise Cécile Descamps Sabouret for Revue Horticole.

Illustration of a cactus with a yellow flower.

Epiphyllum cactus, illustrated by Louise Cécile Descamps Sabouret. Source: Revue horticole. 1898. Contributed in BHL from Harvard University Botany Libraries.

BHL’s digital library is a gold mine of information for discovering more about these women. With the addition of full text searching, I have been able to locate details about these women, including their names, work, other publications, and collaborators. Matching up artists’ signatures with works in BHL has also led to further linking of these women across publications.

Additionally, BHL has actively supported me in making these women more visible. On countless occasions, I have collaborated with BHL staff and their partners to add these women to the BHL catalog by establishing “Creator IDs”. This designation allows other publications affiliated with this woman to be part of one hyperlink within the collection of BHL. This ID also provides “notability” to meet the criteria for inclusion in crowdsourced platforms like Wikidata, where other researchers can discover these women.

I was also pleased to collaborate with BHL and their partners for the #HerNaturalHistory campaign for Women’s History Month in 2019. Through this collaboration, many other researchers have become involved in this area through Wikipedia, and BHL has created the “Women in Natural History” collection of materials showcasing the profound and extensive work that women have done in the biodiversity sciences. These efforts continue to evolve and be updated as more information is uncovered.

Illustration of fungi.

Various fungi illustrated by Mary K. Spittal. Source: Fungi and how to know them. 1909. Authored by Ernest W. Swanton and illustrated by Mary K. Spittal. Contributed in BHL from University of Toronto – Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

Through a recent encounter with the Mycological Book Club on Twitter, I was able to collaborate with other researchers to discover the full name and details of Mary Kerr Spittal. In response to tweets in which I posted illustrations done by women in mycology, Clare Blencowe of the Mycological Book Club shared with me an illustration by a not fully identified woman mycologist using the name M. Spittal. Through full text searching in BHL, I was able to find her name as “Mary K. Spittal”, as well as another publication in which she produced scientific illustrations. At this point, I enlisted the help of my long-time collaborator, Siobhan Leachman. Leachman created a Wikidata item for Spittal and also delved into more resources to discover her history. I also enlisted the help of my mother, Shelby Marshall, who is an experienced genealogy researcher. Over the next few hours, Blencowe, Leachman, Marshall, and I created a detailed picture of Mary Kerr Spittal. The next day, Chris Robson, Catalog Librarian at Harvard University Botany Libraries and a member of the BHL Cataloging Committee, responded to my BHL feedback request for a Creator ID for Spittal, linking her name to her works in BHL. Additionally, Madeline Byrne of the BHL Flickr Group responded to my request to upload Spittal’s works to Flickr, where they have been tagged by artist name to further expand the discoverability of Spittal’s artistic contributions to science. This successful collaboration brought to light another remarkable and notable woman involved in the natural history of mycology.

For the past four years, I have been fortunate to find more of these women through my individual research and collaborations with so many others. I created the spreadsheet “Women in Historical SciArt” to share my research and to promote further research into the work and lives of these remarkable women. These experiences have enriched my life beyond measure, and my goal is to continue expanding access and knowledge about the contributions of these early women scientists and illustrators.

Without BHL, I would never have discovered these inspiring women in science and their work. I am incredibly grateful to BHL for all the support and encouragement of this research, and their continued updates to their digital library and Flickr collection, which support my ongoing work.

A person with brown curly hair and glasses.

Michelle L. Marshall currently works as an ICU RN in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She previously practiced as a lawyer in various litigation roles, and she started her work life as a public school teacher. She welcomes collaborations and questions about her independent research into historical SciArt, particularly as it relates to women, through her website, www.histsciart.com and the related social media sites at @HistSciArt.