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Anna Maria Sibylla Merian - Naturalist: 1647-1717

Anna Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717), who was born in 1647 in Frankfurt, was a naturalist and scientific illustrator who studied plants and insects and made detailed paintings about them. Her detailed observations and documentation of the metamorphosis of the butterfly make her a significant, albeit not well known, contributor to entomology.

"In my youth, I spent my time investigating insects. At the beginning, I started with silk worms in my home town of Frankfurt. I realised that other caterpillars produced beautiful butterflies or moths, and that silk worms did the same. This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to see how they changed". (foreword from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium — Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam)

The scholars of the time believed that insects came from "spontaneous generation of rotting mud", Against the prevailing opinion, Merian studied what actually happened in the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies. She took note of the transformations, along with the details of the chrysalises and plants that they used to feed themselves, and illustrated all the stages of their development in her sketch book.

She moved several times before settling for a time in Amsterdam. Her older daughter, Johanna Helena, married merchant Jacob Herolt and moved with him to Surinam, which was at that time a recently acquired Dutch colony. In 1699 the city of Amsterdam sponsored Merian to travel to Surinam.

The pursuit of her work in Suriname was an unusual endeavour, especially for a woman. In general, men travelled in the colonies to find insects, make collections and to work there, or to settle. Scientific expeditions at this period of time were almost totally unknown and the work of Merian raised many eyebrows. She succeeded, however, in discovering a whole range of previously unknown animals and plants in the interior of Surinam. Merian spent time studying and classifying her findings and described them in great detail. Her classification of butterflies and moths is still relevant today.

It is notable that her work was largely ignored by scientists of the time because the official language of science was still Latin. In the last years of the 20th century, the work of Merian has been rediscovered and recognised.

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