Before Peter Rabbit, this Children’s Author was a Secret Scientist

By Stephanie Weber

She wrote the stories of adorable rabbits like Flopsy, Mopsy, and Peter Rabbit…but before that she used to write about mushrooms. Not cute, childhood stories of animated mushrooms. She invested in actual scientific research on fungi. Beatrix was an avid mycologist with a lifelong passion for studying all things fungal.

For The Love of ‘Shrooms

During her lifetime in the Victorian era, there were very few female naturists. Despite that, Potter couldn’t help her lifelong hobby. She began simply by sketching everything she saw in the natural world, but soon became especially interested in studying fungi and spores. This led to her becoming both an accomplished scientific illustrator as well as to her authorship of an academic paper titled “On the Germination of Spores of Agaricaceae”.

In that paper she proposed her own theory for how spores reproduced. The paper was presented on her behalf at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897. The reason for this was that women were not allowed at meetings for the Linnean Society, even if their work was exemplary. A man had to present on their behalf.

It turned out that Potter was working in the wrong era and that her theories, however correct they would turn out to be, were not welcome because of her gender. Years later the Linnean Society and mycologists the world over found her theories were correct, completely ignoring her original theses.

From Fungi to Rabbits

In 1901 she privately published an illustrated letter she wrote to a child that wound up being the first appearance of Peter Rabbit. She then turned to writing children’s stories and found a fruitful career there, leaving science behind. Her beautiful watercolor illustrations of mushrooms are on display at the Armitt Museum in Britain which she willed to them after her death in 1943.

There are more than 450 of them and are so detailed that mycologists still refer to them today. You won’t spot floppy eared rabbits, but you will see countless colorful fungi that refer to a career that could have been had she only lived one hundred years later.

About the Author

Stephanie Weber

Stephanie Weber is a comedian and writer whose work has been published on Atlas Obscura, Slate, The AV Club, Reductress, The Whiskey Journal and more. She performs stand up comedy at The Lincoln Lodge in Chicago.

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