Natural history: A scientist’s eye

Linda Lear in Nature:

PotterIn January, the British press reported the discovery of a rare parasitic fungus on the Mar Lodge Estate in Aberdeenshire. Liz Holden, an independent field mycologist, spotted the small jelly fungus Tremella simplex growing on the pink blobs of another rarity, Aleurodiscus amorphus. When she checked, she discovered that T. simplex had first been drawn in the late 1890s, by Beatrix Potter (1866–1943). Before Potter became a famous children's author and illustrator, she was a pioneering naturalist and amateur mycologist, although later discouraged by professionals in Britain's natural-history establishment. It was her habit to draw everything she saw under the lens, so Potter included the Tremella in her study, although she could not have recognized it then as an independent parasitic fungus. Potter was an extraordinary observer whose many contributions to natural science are only now becoming more widely recognized. Along with women such as Margaret Gatty, author of The History of British Seaweeds (1863), Potter was part of a generation of female naturalists whose work contributed to the advancement of professional science, whether acknowledged or not.

Potter always prized the tribute paid to her by family friend John Everett Millais, the Pre-Raphaelite society painter: “plenty of people can draw, but you … have observation”. All her life, she exhibited a meticulous concern for factual evidence.

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