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SCIENCE AND ART: Leonardo and Maria 

Leonardo da Vinci was an intellectual giant and legendary as both artist and scientist. His daily journals record a thought process that seemed to effortlessly float between inspirations on painting and sculpting to observations on nature, anatomy, engineering, and architecture.

Although considerably less well-known, Maria Sybilla Merian was also an accomplished artist and a scientist. Unfortunately she lived in a time when opportunities for women artists were minimal, and those for women scientists virtually non-existent.

Born in Germany one hundred years after Leonardo, Merian was trained in the arts by her father. Maria revealed an artistic ability at an early age, due in no small part to an exceptionally keen power of observation for the natural world. Her specialty became butterflies and moths, and her home was soon filled with boxes containing living caterpillars and butterflies. It is worth noting that in Maria's time, moths were believed to spring spontaneously from old wool, cabbages, and occasionally the pages of books.

What truly set Maria's exquisite work apart was that her paintings detailed the complete life cycle from egg to caterpillar to pupae to butterfly and were often associated with the specific plant species that served as their food source. This was cutting-edge science wrapped in a beautiful package. 
Merian - from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium,
Plate XX. (Thysania agrippina)

Unfortunately, by 1685, Merian found herself a divorced single mother with two daughters to care for. Undeterred and with her daughters in tow, she moved to Amsterdam, then a global hub of commerce, art, and science. There she supported her family by selling her paintings, and in 1699, at aged 52, along with one of her daughters, she set off the Dutch colony of Surinam on the northwestern coast of South America. Her trip was entirely self-financed, and it was the first expedition of its kind, with the sole purpose of scientific study. She spent the next two years in the jungles of Surinam, exploring, collecting, and painting the local flora and fauna.
On her return to Amsterdam, she published her findings in a lavish volume; Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. It was a huge hit and made the exotic world of the rainforest come alive to scientists worldwide. By being the first person to illustrate her subjects within their natural habitats, the relationships of the plants, animals, and their environment were documented, foreshadowing the advent of the field of ecology by almost two hundred years.

In Merian's honor, nine new species of butterflies, two beetles, and six plants were later christened with her name. Like Leonardo, Maria Merian successfully bridged the worlds of art and science. As a woman in those fields, she was a pioneer, overcoming the challenges of her times to leave a legacy that is most deserving of our recognition.
Calico Butterfly, Wasp and Acanthacae 
-Maria Meriam, Metamorphisis Insectorium de Surinamensis-1708
I didn't want to just know names of things. I remember wanting to know how it all worked." - Elizabeth Blackburn, molecular biologist and Nobel Prize winner

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