Tag Archives: Maria Sibylla Merian

Spontaneous Generation and Experimentation

Insect lifecycle on grapes as illustrated by Merian

Early spring seemed a good time to take a look at not just butterflies but also the less appealing insects too. (I’m having issues with ant swarms in the kitchen, any non-toxic ideas for addressing that, please pass them on!)


Awhile back I mentioned Maria Sibylla Merian’s flower and insect illustrations. Besides connecting insects to host plants she also showed that insects did not just burst into being but had a lifecycle. For its time that was a controversial observation.

Colored copper engraving from Merian’s Insects of Surinam, Plate XLIX


A lot of people, including those involved in studying natural history, believed that ‘lower species’ were spontaneously generated from dead and inorganic matter. For example, flies were believed to rise full grown from rotting meat, fleas from dust, frogs from mud and slime, etc…


These ideas predated Aristotle, who codified them. Like many of his notions they were embraced by Christianity, and only fell out of favor in the mid to late 19th century. (You can see where this would prove problematic for people curious about inherited traits-what inheritance?)


It took centuries of scientific experimentation and observation to put down spontaneous generation. One of the first studies (and perhaps the most elegant) was by Francesco Redi in the 17th century. He had doctorates in medicine and philosophy and was head physician for the Medici Court.


(Digression: Redi was interested in toxicology-not sure if that was a wise or dangerous interest in the Medici Italy! He studied viper venom, proving that rather than being poisonous if ingested it had to be introduced to the blood through a bite to be dangerous, that not all bites were venomous, and that pressure around a wound could prevent venom from spreading to the rest of the body. In modern times an endangered subspecies of Italian viper was named in his honor.)

Vipera aspis francisciredi


His experiments published in 1668 were the first systematic testing of spontaneous generation.


The first experiment involved 6 jars. He added inorganic matter, dead fish, and raw veal to two jars each. One of each type of jar was left open, while the second was covered with fine gauze so that air could circulate but that nothing could get in or out. After several days he discovered maggots in the open jars but none in the gauze covered jars.


For his second experiment her put raw meat into 3 jars. One was left uncovered, one was covered with gauze and the third was sealed with cork. Maggots appeared in the open jar and on top of the gauze that covered the second jar. The maggots on top of the gauze didn’t survive and nothing happened with the sealed jar.

Francesco Redi


(Perhaps we should have a moment of silence for the person who had to clean up after and smell these experiments…)


As a follow up to this experiment he kept the live maggots from the first jar until they metamorphosed into flies. He then put live flies in a jar with raw meat and dead flies in another jar with raw meat and sealed both. Maggots only appeared in the jar sealed with live flies, confirming their lifecycle.


Mindful of the fates of Giordano Bruno (burnt alive) and Galileo Galilei (house arrest for life) Redi managed to present his findings in a manner palatable to the Catholic Church. (Perhaps he managed this by saying that although he disproved spontaneous generation for flies he still believed it possible for other species. It took Louis Pasteur, almost two centuries later, to finally put the nail in that coffin.)


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Filed under Historical Facts and Trivia, Natural Science

Google Prompt and Metamorphosis

Embarrassingly enough, I’m finally posting this because of Google. I’ve had notes for ages, but I’m not always good at scrunching a complicated life into a handful of lines, so I’ve been procrastinating on writing about Maria Sibylla Merian. I saw one of her books on display at the Library of Congress last week. Then I saw the Google doodle proclaiming her birthday, and was finally shamed into it!


I have a lot of unusual reference books on my shelves. Perhaps the one that gets the most second glances is my copy of Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam, nestled between my art books.


It is by Maria Sibylla Merian, whose work I first saw years ago at a Rembrandt House special exhibit.


Merian (1647-1717) was one of the first documenters of insect metamorphosis.


She was born into an artistic family–her father was an engraver and publisher, and her stepfather a still life painter who encouraged her talents and taught her along with his (male) students. She was interested in flowers and insects and observed the life cycles of both.


She married her stepfather’s apprentice, moved to Nuremburg, had children, continued painting, designed embroidery patterns and took on (female) students of her own. By teaching their children she got access of the gardens of the elite and studied their insects.


In her time scholars still held onto spontaneous generation–basically the belief than insects and other ‘lower’ creatures were spontaneously created from mud or other debris. For example, that flies came to life from rotted meat.


She illustrated the metamorphosis of insects-showed that caterpillars wove cocoons and turned into butterflies. She painted the stages of these transformations and their host plants. These were collected into her first book in 1675.  The New Book of Flowers ultimately took three volumes to complete. It showed each flower distinctly so that it could be used as a reference for artists and designers of embroidery patterns.


She had a second daughter, published a second book and returned home after her stepfather died. After his estate was settled she left her husband to live in a religious commune.


There she met the governor of the Dutch colonies in Surinam and was introduced to its flora and fauna.


She later moved to Amsterdam, where her work was noticed by the scientific community. She was able to study the collections gathered by the intelligentsia. Her older daughter married a merchant and moved to Surinam, and Merian sold her belongings and was partially sponsored by the city of Amsterdam to travel to Surinam with her younger daughter, Dorthea Maria. They spent two years there studying the local animals and plants–recording the native names and uses–and collecting specimens. She contracted malaria and returned home, publishing books about her experiences and selling the specimens she collected.


She suffered a stroke and died in relative obscurity. It was Peter the Great who ultimately saved her for posterity. He had seen her work before, and heard that the then ailing artist had many works in her collection. Dorthea Maria sold 300 of her mother’s remaining paintings to an agent representing Peter the Great.


He opened his country’s first museum to exhibit them. He also invited Dorthea Maria and her family to Russia. She designed one of his largest scientific exhibitions and her husband became a court painter. After their first exhibition, most of Maria Sibylla Merian’s paintings were closed away in the libraries of St. Petersburg. This kept the delicate paintings safe from sunlight and abuse until their rediscovery centuries later.


It was an adventurous life for a woman of her time. (Anyone, anytime actually.) She traveled long distances to collect information and samples nearly a century before scientific expeditions became the norm. Her studies and use of native names influenced the European terms for some of the creatures, though since she published in the common tongue at a time when science was Latin only, her influence was limited and her observations against spontaneous generation largely ignored. She was a talented outsider rather than part of the scientific community. (If you’d like to read more on her and other early adventure/naturalists, check out Eaten by a Giant Clam, by Joseph Cummins. You’ll probably learn alot about a number of names that sound vaguely familiar.)


Filed under Art, Books, Natural Science