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Maria Sybilla Meriaen

Maria Sybilla Meriaen

Maria Sibylla Merian was born April 2, 1647, into the family of Swiss engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian the Elder. Her father died three years later and in 1651 her mother married still life painter Jacob Marell. Marell encouraged Merian to draw and paint. At the age of 13 she painted her first images of insects and plants from specimens she had captured.

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Merian worked as a botanic artist. She published three collections of engravings of plants in 1675, 1677 and 1680. Afterwards she studied insects, keeping her own live specimens, and made drawings about insect metamorphosis. In her time, it was very unusual that someone would be genuinely interested in insects, which had a bad reputation and were colloquially called "beasts of the devil." As a consequence of their reputation, the metamorphosis of these animals was largely unknown. Merian described the life cycles of 186 insect species, amassing evidence that contradicted the contemporary notion that insects were "born of mud" by spontaneous generation. Moreover, although certain scholars were aware of the process of metamorphosis from the caterpiller to the butterfly, the majority of people did not understand the process. The work that Anna Maria Sibylla Merian published, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung -- The Caterpillar, Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food, was very popular in certain sections of high society as a result of being published in the vernacular. However, it is notable that her work was largely ignored by scientists of the time because the official language of science was still Latin. Merian also described many other details of the evolution and lifecycle of the insects she observed. She could, for example, show that each stage of the change from caterpillar to butterfly depended on a small number of plants for its nourishment. As a consequence the eggs were laid near these plants. Her work places her among one of the first naturalists to have observed insects directly. This approach gave her much more insight into their lives and was contrary to the way that most scientists worked at the time. Her drawings of plants, snakes, spiders, iguanas and tropical beetles are still collected today by amateurs all over the world. Maria Sibylla Merian died in Amsterdam on January 13, 1717. Her daughter Dorothea published Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis, a collection of her mother's work, posthumously.