By Rosalie Robison
Many know Beatrix Potter as the author and illustrator of famous children’s books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but there’s another side to her. Before she became known for popular children’s characters like Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle Duck, she drew hundreds of fungi and experimented with growing mushroom spores.
One day in 1895, Potter was drawing fungi she observed under a microscope. She became curious as to how they reproduced, whether it was the same for each species, and whether they could reproduce more than one time.
To follow up on these questions, she needed access to a place like Kew Gardens, a scientific institute for research in taxonomy, anatomy, cytology, and conservation. Kew Gardens was not open to the public during Potter’s time. Scholars needed permission from the director for admission to conduct research. Those without formal education, particularly women, were excluded. Given that she had no significant work in any botanical journal nor belonged to any science club, Potter faced a conundrum.
With the help of her Uncle Harry, a chemist, Potter eventually gained access to Kew Gardens. Although the staff at Kew did not take her seriously, she successfully germinated the difficult and unpredictable agaric mushroom as well as other fungi. Several of these spores were later germinated by a Kew cryptologist following her guidance. No one else was doing this research at the time.
Potter proposed other theories that were innovative for her time, such as the idea of mycelium. In wondering what fungi did during the winter months, she decided that they must have an underground system and could travel from one log to another in the form of mycelium.
Even more innovative were her ideas about lichens. Potter proposed that lichens were actually hybrid or dual organisms composed of fungi and algae in a symbiotic relationship. This idea was very unpopular during her time, as most botanists dismissed lichens as being a low-order plant thought to be either a simple moss or fungus. It would take another 100 years for the symbiotic nature of lichens and the hybridization of fungi to become accepted fact.
Despite her promising ideas, the director of Kew found her work inconsequential and dismissed her. She submitted her findings on spore germination in a paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae,” to the Linnean Society, a male-only group to which she was not permitted entry. Again, her theories were not taken seriously, and she withdrew her paper from publication.
Over the next 2 years, she produced over 70 microscopic drawings and concluded her research, going on to illustrate children’s books for which she is more well known. Although her paper was lost and her forays into the botanical establishment were rebuffed, her ideas were eventually shown to be correct. Moreover, her watercolors of fungi are so accurate that modern mycologists still refer to them to identify fungi. The mycologist W.P.K. Findley later used 59 of her illustrated fungi in his book, “Wayside & Woodland Fungi.”
Lear, L. (2007). Beatrix Potter: A life in nature. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.