“The Art of Observation: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Metamorphosis of Insect Science” by Kim Todd



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“The Art of Observation: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Metamorphosis of Insect Science”



This presentation will explore the life and work of early entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian. An artist turned naturalist, Merian was born just thirteen years after Galileo was prosecuted for proclaiming the earth orbited the sun. But in 1699, more than a century before Darwin or Humboldt, she sailed from Amsterdam to South America to study metamorphosis, believing she could only discover the truth by observing insects in their natural habitat. It was an unheard of journey for any naturalist at the time, much less for a woman, and she undertook it at the age of 52, with only her daughter for company.

For two years, she searched the Surinam rainforest for caterpillars and sketched her discoveries on scraps of parchment. Her careful observations made her one of the first to describe metamorphosis—at a time when theories of spontaneous generation still held sway. Over the course of her career, she documented phenomena that would only be explained much later: phenotypic plasticity, parasitoids, the creation of galls. Her work laid the foundation for modern-day ecology, but her accomplishments were mostly dismissed and then forgotten in the nineteenth century when scientists feared they would be discredited if they built on the work of “amateurs.” I’ll discuss her biography; her books, including her masterwork, The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam; and the way her investigations still influence our understanding of insects today.

Kim Todd is the author of four books about science and history, including Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis and Tinkering with Eden: A Natural History of Exotic Species in America. Her most recent, Sensational, the Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters,” was published by HarperCollins last April. Her work has appeared in Orion, Sierra Magazine, Smithsonian, High Country News, and several Best American Science and Nature Writing anthologies, among other places, and has received the PEN/Jerard Fund Award and the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. She is currently on the creative writing MFA faculty at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches literary nonfiction. You can find her at www.kimtodd.net.