Many of us grew up watching fish swim in an aquarium either at home or in a classroom. But most people are never taught about the inventor of the modern glass aquarium, Jeanne Villepreux-Power.
Born in 1794 in rural France, stories say that at 18 she walked nearly 250 miles to Paris to become a seamstress. She was hired to embroider the dress of an Italian princess. At the wedding, she was introduced to merchant James Power. After they married, the couple moved to Sicily and thanks to her husband’s wealth, Jeanne was able to pursue whatever she wanted. And she wanted to become a scientist.
For twenty years, Villepreux-Power studied wildlife, focusing on aquatic life. She wrote books, befriended other naturalists, and even documented tool use in a species of octopus. She also was a conservationist, and developed more sustainable methods for fishing and aquaculture like restocking overfished rivers with cage raised fish.
In 1832, Jeanne was frustrated with studying dead specimens and designed the “first recognizable glass aquarium” for her own use. She designed three tanks, two that were anchored to the sea bed, and a glass tank for her study designed like the commonplace tanks we see today.
Specifically, she used these tanks to study the paper nautilus, wanting to observe their entire lifespan from larva to adult. Her discoveries changed the understanding of the creature. At the time, it was believed that the Argonauta argo stole it’s shell from other animals. But she observed that the nautilus creates its own shell.
She published her first book in 1839, and a second in 1842. Her work was not universally accepted, but Sir Richard Owen, the founder of the British Museum of Natural History, presented it to the Zoological Society of London. Villepreux-Power became a member of “more than a dozen” scientific societies.
Unfortunately, Villepreux-Power’s contributions were largely lost when her papers and equipment were in transit from Sicily to England in 1843. The boat sank, and aside from correspondence to other researchers, her work was lost. She did not continue her scientific research, but her contributions to marine biology continue to benefit the world.
Suggested By: Jennifer Lee
Written by Mary Ratliff