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Beatrix Potter: Mycologist, Artist, and Author

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Helen Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) is well-known for her children's books (with characters such as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck), but few know that the acclaimed children's book author was also a mycologist and conservationist. Potter spent a portion of her life producing several hundred paintings of mushrooms, boletes, jelly fungi, and others, studying them microscopically and drawing what she saw while looking under the microscope. 

Her curiosity led her to experiment with spore germination and develop her own theory. With the help of her uncle, Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe, a chemist and vice chancellor of the University of London, she consulted with botanists at Kew Gardens, convincing George Massee of her ability to germinate spores and her theory of hybridization.

Rebuffed by many botanists of the day, because of her gender and her amateur status, Beatrix wrote up her conclusions and submitted a paper On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae to the Linnean Society of London in 1897. It was introduced by Massee because, as a female, Potter could not attend proceedings or read her paper. She subsequently withdrew it but continued her microscopic studies for several more years. 

Potter later gave her mycological drawings and scientific drawings to the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside where mycologists still refer to them to identify fungi. In 1967 the mycologist W.P.K. Findlay included many of Potter’s beautifully accurate fungus drawings in his book Wayside & Woodland Fungi, thereby fulfilling her desire to one day have her fungus drawings published in a book. In 1997 the Linnean Society issued a posthumous apology to Potter for the sexism displayed in its handling of her research.

Of course, Beatrix Potter was destined to be known not for her mycological drawings but for something quite different:

“And so it was that on 4 September, the very day after discovering the rare pine cone fungus, Beatrix sat down in the sunshine on the lawn of Eastwood and wrote a picture letter about a disobedient young rabbit called ‘Peter’. ‘I don’t know what to write to you … so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.’” — from Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear.

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