Illustrating the Importance of Women in Science

In the library’s McLean Wolf Rare Book Room you’ll find no shortage of works authored by men because, according to conventions of the time, they were best suited to explore the mysteries of the natural world. Some women, however, found ways bend expectations of womanhood to incorporate the study of the natural world into their lives. Many were born into families with the resources to provide them a formal education, of which drawing and appreciation for the natural world were a significant part. Some had access to scientific networks, who married or were related to male naturalists and were expected to support their work. Some were born into artisan families and incorporated their love for nature into their work. In the Academy’s Library and Archives, there are many examples of the important contributions of women.

Anna Maria Hussey (1805-1853) 

Anna Maria Hussey (nee Reed) was the daughter of a gentry clergyman and nothing is known of her formal education but it likely resembled the typical education of young women of her class. In 1831, she married Thomas J. Hussey, the newly appointed Rector of Hayes, Kent, and himself an amateur astronomer.  

Hussey had access to an extensive network of naturalists and developed a significant interest in mycology around 1840. Hussey found a mentor in Rev. Miles J. Berkeley, the most eminent mycologist in Britain, who she corresponded with not only about mycology, but with whom she was surprisingly frank about the internal conflict she felt between her domestic responsibilities as a Rector’s wife and her scientific research.   

Hussey’s research culminated in a two-volume work published from 1847-1855, Illustrations of British mycologyIllustrations was comprised of 140 illustrations, noted by contemporary reviewers for their beauty and accuracy, by Hussey and her sister Frances Reed as well as text that contained scientific information for each fungus but also included engaging commentary on folklore, history and morality as well as gastronomical notes on the edible fungi. The same year, Hussey also illustrated Chares David Badham’s Treatise on the esculent funguses of England. She died in 1853, before the final volume of her life’s work could be published.  

Helen Lawson (abt. 1808-1853) 

Helen Lawson was born into a family of artisans, headed by her father, engraver Alexander Lawson. The senior Lawson was the preferred engraver for many Academy members, thus bringing Helen into contact with many of the eminent American naturalists of the time. Nothing is known of Helen’s formal education, however such an environment provided ample opportunity for Helen to develop her talents for depicting the natural world.  

Helen got her formal start in the Lawson family business by coloring plates engraved by her father. She and her sister Malvina, were paid $5000 by Academy Vice President George Ord to color plates for new editions of Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology. Though her father did not teach Helen the engravers art, as he taught her brother Oscar, she successfully taught herself, though later abandoning the practice due to the physical strain it presented.  

The most prolific of Helen’s illustrative works are the plates for Samuel Stehman Haldeman’s Monograph of the Freshwater Univalve Mollusca of the United StatesThe illustrations were so well received that conchologist Amos Binney replaced the illustrator for Terrestrial Air-Breathing Mollusks of the United States with Lawson. 

Helen later became a secretary of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, a precursor to Moore College of Art and Design, where she applied her experience towards enabling a future generation of women to pursue a trade as illustrators.  

These are just a couple of the women whose labors contributed to our understanding of the natural world, but we must also acknowledge the women whose stories we don’t and likely will never know. Women who had some hand in publications of natural history as colorists, collectors or who communicated knowledge that, for reasons of race or class, whose names cannot be found within the library. Women who wished to share their observations of the natural world but for the same reasons of gender, race, and class or perhaps that their engagement with the natural world did not fit within the parameters of Western science, we will never know.  


  1. Wonderful article, thank you! There are so many names to add to this. One that comes to mind is Lucy Say, who illustrated the works of her husband, Thomas Say. He was an early member of the Academy. It is important to note that Academy members were often Quakers, who were more open-minded about including women in their endeavors and often encouraged them.

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