Posts Tagged ‘Mary Treat’

In an article and book review published in The Guardian in 2003, Richard Dawkins excitedly reported that “an obscure letter in a library” suggested that Charles Darwin was the forefather not only of the theory of evolution but also of modern genetics.

The letter to which he referred was written by Darwin to fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in February 1866. Bringing to light a little-known yet highly significant discussion of early Pangenesis, Darwin and Wallace’s written exchange is a powerful reminder of the wealth of important information contained within Darwin’s private correspondence. As Dawkins noted,  the letter reminds us that Darwin “was not only a deep thinker” but also “a master encyclopaedist” who “collated huge quantities of information from around the world” on a great variety of subjects.

Indeed, Darwin’s private correspondence shows very clearly that he was part of a surprisingly broad network of naturalists on whose expertise he relied very heavily and Dawkins is correct to suggest that Darwin was arguably more of a scientific collaborator than he was a lone hero. There is, however, a glaring error in Dawkins’ portrayal of Darwin’s scientific network: “…each gentleman [was],” Dawkins says, “meticulously acknowledged for having ‘attended to’ the subject”. Darwin was indeed the most polite and conscientious of correspondents, but his scientific network was made up not just of gentlemen like Alfred Russel Wallace but also a large number of women, including Mary Treat, Lydia Becker, Carolina Dodel Port, Mary Barber and Margaretta Hare-Morris to name but a few.

Delving into Darwin’s private correspondence offers great potential for us to better understand both the full breadth of his ideas and the collaborative nature of his work. It will also help to correct the enduring assumption that during the nineteenth century science was a world inhabited exclusively by the so-called “scientific gentleman”.


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Home Studies in NatureOur research into Mary Treat has been given a boost in the form of associate professor of nineteenth-century science and Mary Treat expert Tina Gianquitto of the Colorado School of Mines who has generously offered us her help.  In collaboration with both our Cambridge and Harvard offices, Tina has provided an article on the role of domesticity and Darwin in Treat’s Home Studies and has been interviewed by a member of the Harvard team while on a recent research trip to Boston.  We look forward to bringing you Tina’s article and audio interview as part of our case study on Mary Treat in the near future!

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Dr Philippa Hardman has been appointed research associate for the gender stream of the Darwin Correspondence Project and is in the process of researching the life, works and achievements of Mary Treat — a nature writer and naturalist from Vineland, New Jersey.  Zephyranthes TreatiaeTreat corresponded with Charles Darwin more than any other of his women correspondents and is perhaps best known for her 1873 article Controlling Sex in Butterflies in which she made groundbreaking observations about the relationship between the amount of food ingested by butterfly larvae and the sex of adult butterfly. Treat also identified a number of new plant and insect species, including a rare fern, two new species of burrowing spider and the Zephyr Lily which was named Zephyranthes Treatiae in her honour.

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