Women and the blue planet – contributions of some women to our knowledge of marine zoology

by Ann Sylph on

June 2018 Update: Read our open access Virtual Issue of Journal of Zoology on the theme of Women and the blue planet.  

This month in the UK we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first women obtaining the vote on 6 February. As there has been so much interest in marine life following the broadcast of Blue planet II,  I decided to feature this month women and the blue planet : the contributions of some women to the development of marine zoology. I cannot mention all women marine zoologists so I am highlighting  a few women from  the past.

The earliest women I want to feature are the Susanna and Anna Lister who were responsible for these anatomical illustrations in a book dated 1696. The book itself was written by their father, Martin Lister. Their mother Hannah had also illustrated some of Martin Lister’s works.

Black and white illustration of bivalves dating from 1696
Pholadis anatome Tab 7 in Conchyliorium bivalvium... , 1696 illus. by Susanna and Anna Lister


In the eighteenth century it possibly became more socially acceptable for women to have an interest in natural history. Queen Charlotte, wife of George III had interest in botany, geology and zoology and so these subjects became fashionable among aristocratic women whilst less wealthy women helped to popularise natural history by writing and illustrating books.

Mary Roberts (1788-1864) wrote 15 books about natural history, greatly helping to popularise the subject. They were in the form of `letters’ similar in form to Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne. We have two `marine’ books in ZSL Library by Mary Roberts , The conchologist's companion published in 1834 and A popular history of the Mollusca, comprising a familiar account of their classification, instincts, and habits, and of the growth and distinguishing characters of their shells, 1851.

Title page of Mary Roberts book The Conchologist's companion, 1834 with colour illustration of sea shells
Title page of the Conchologist's Companion by Mary Roberts, 1834

Mary (1817-1893) and Elizabeth Kirby (1823-1873) were forced to find work after the death of the dissenter father and began to write fiction and natural history. In their book The sea and its wonders,  1871, they aimed `to study the great book of Nature, rather than perplex him with a strictly scientific arrangement’ according to their preface. Further information about Roberts and the Kirby sisters can be found in Popularising marine natural history in eighteenth – and nineteenth-century Britain by one of ZSL’s former Visiting Scholars, Professor Geoff Moore. See below for publication details. Geoff Moore pays tribute to the sisters `The Kirbys’ book had a global scope, containing oceanography, chemistry and biology, and was not simply a British seashore guide’.

Map of the world showing the ocean currents, 1871
Map of currents in the sea in The sea and its wonders by Mary and Elizabeth Kirby, 1871


Black and white illustration of male and female narwhals (marine mammals)
Narwahl illustration in the Sea and its wonders by Mary and Elizabeth Kirby, 1871


Jeanne Villepreux-Power (1794-1871) moved to Messina in Sicily following her marriage. She began natural history collecting and became increasingly interested in cephalopods. She made careful observations and carried out experiments to see if the shell of the Argonaut or paper nautilus was actually secreted by the animal, this was against the established view. She corresponded with Sir Richard Owen (he is the subject of another of our blogs) who at a meeting of the Zoological Society on 26 February 1839 read out a letter from Villepreux-Power then went on to present evidence agreeing with her and defending her against critics and those with other theories about the shell of the nautilus. (This paper can now be read in full our Virtual issue of Journal of Zoology) 

Jeanne Villepreux-Power also worked on octopus and to develop her interest in both octopus and Argonauts she designed and built holding cages effectively creating modern aquaria. She was a Corresponding Member of ZSL.

Colour illustration of a sailing paper nautilus
Illustration of paper nautilus from The naturalist's miscellany …, [by George Shaw; illustrated by Frederick P. (E. & R.) Nodder] Vol. 3 Plate 101 (1792)

Another woman making a major contribution to the development of aquaria was Anna Thynne, she was featured in a previous blog.  She successfully kept marine animals in her home. Her notes  were published On the increase of Madrepores by Mrs Thynne with notes by P.H. Gosse In The Annals and Magazine of Natural History [Third Series] No. 18, June 1859, pp. 449-461.


Some further reading and publications mentioned in the blog – all these items are in ZSL Library

The role of female cephalopod researchers : past and present by A. Louise Allcock et al, Journal of Natural History, 2015, Vol. 49 (21-24), pp. 1235-1266

The sea and its wonders by Mary and Elizabeth Kirby. London : Nelson, 1871

Conchyliorum bivalvium utriusque aquae exercitatio anatomica tertia, huic accedit dissertatio medicinalis de calculo humano, [by] Martini Lister. Londini :  sumptibus authoris impressa, 1696

Popularising marine natural history in eighteenth – and nineteenth-century Britain by P. G. Moore, Archives of natural history, 2014, Vol. 41 (1), pp. 45-62

On the Paper Nautilus (Argonauta Argo), Professor Owen,  Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London Part VII. 1839. pp. 35-48.  DOI: 10.1111/j.1096-3642.1839.tb01425.x

Richard Owen describes and agrees with the research carried out by Jeanne Villepreux-Power

The conchologist's companion by Mary Roberts. London :  Whittaker, 1834

A popular history of the Mollusca, comprising a familiar account of their classification, instincts, and habits, and of the growth and distinguishing characters of their shells by Mary Roberts. London :  Reeve & Benham, 1851

Spirals in time  : the secret life and curious afterlife of seashells, Helen Scales, London : Bloomsbury Sigma, 2015. Pages 194-199 are about Jeanne Villepreux-Power

Theatres of glass : the woman who brought the sea to the city,  Rebecca Stott, London : Short Books, 2003. (About Anna Thynne)

Dr Martin Lister (1639-1712) – pioneer conchologist by Peter Topley, Mollusc World, 2016, No. 42, pp. 6-13

The natural history of Selbourne, with its antiquities ; naturalist's calendar, &c., by Gilbert White. A new ed., with notes by Edward Blyth, London :  Orr & Smith, 1836 [There are several editions of this book in ZSL Library)



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