You might be wondering why a children’s author and illustrator is the focus of our podcast today, but Beatrix Potter was a naturalist who completed her own amateur mycology research.
As a mostly self-taught artist she was inspired by the natural world around her and was drawn to mushrooms, finding the variety of their shape and colors a challenge to her watercolor techniques. In late 1892 she began a correspondence with a naturalist who admired her pictures and sent her specimens to paint. He also advised her on microscope techniques and scientific classification.
Potter began to study the cross sections of mushrooms, showing their gills and examining their tiny spores as observed under the microscope. She began speculating on the germination of these spores and by 1896 she was successfully germinating spores of various fungi on glass plates and measuring their growth under a microscope.
In 1897 with help from male naturalists, she submitted a paper “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae” to the Linnean Society. As women were not permitted to be fellows of the society and only fellows could attend meetings, Potter was not allowed to present or hear the discussion of her paper. Some accounts say that the paper was well received but members felt it needed more work, some say that her work was dismissed because of her gender, and other accounts say that she noticed some contamination of her samples during this time. The end result was the same in that she withdrew her paper for amendment but it was never resubmitted or published.
It was only five years later that Potter would write the first of her books, The Tale of Peter Rabbit which would marry her great imagination with her highly accurate illustrations. Not only would she become a celebrated children’s book author, she would also spend much of her later life as a conservationist in England’s Lake District.
Potter’s lasting legacy to the world of mycology is her collection of 350 highly detailed illustrations of fungi, mosses, and spores which are still used today to help with specimen identification.
Written by Angela Goad