Though she may be famous for her stories of a radish stealing little bunny, Mrs. Potter was far more than the creator of Peter Rabbit. First and foremost, she was a science nerd. Secondly, she was an artist. Not only did her drawings brighten up the pages children’s stories, but her illustrations exposed a hidden world of fungi that had never before been seen.
Potter, born in 1866, grew up in England’s Victorian Era. Her parents amassed a fortune from cotton trading, shipbuilding and the stock market; they were one of the lucky families who had more than enough money to give Beatrix an education. She did not attend a schoolhouse but rather was taught by a number of governesses, who allowed her to pursue her interests in the natural sciences. In fact, the pets she kept in her classroom may have been the inspiration for the animal characters in her books.
Beatrix was a very hands on learner; she collected bugs and fossils, and even studied archeological artifacts found during excavations in London. However, her main passion was mycology, or the study of fungi.
Potter lived with her parents until age thirty. During this midlife crisis, she decided to break out on her own. Beatrix wanted to use the talent she had for drawing in a career devoted to science, with a particular interest in mycology. She collected samples of all the mushrooms that she could find, and began painting the fungi in great detail.
After meeting her mentor Charles McIntosh in 1892, she started to draw incredibly articulate images of fungi spores under the microscope. Through her immersion in the world of spores, she was able to germinate specimens and began to develop a theory about how fungi reproduce. She hypothesized that spores germinate via a method called hybridization, as opposed to symbiosis, as previously thought.
However, Potter had to confront a great deal of discrimination when presenting her findings. She took her work to the Linnean Society but was not taken seriously because she was a woman. Her theory was later shown to be correct. Because of the way Beatrix was treated, she quit the world of academia and began publishing children’s books. To their credit, The Linnean Society formally apologized in 1997 for the sexism displayed against her.
Beatrix had her fungi paintings published, which are still consulted today by natural scientists. In all, she was amazing artist and mycologist who not only contributed to the canon of great children’s literature, but also had a great impact on how we understand fungi.