The Marvellous Mary Merrifield – A homage to a 19th century wonder woman

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Booth Museum of Natural History
Continues to September 2019

A new display celebrating the work of a fascinating Victorian female scientist from Brighton has been revealed at the Booth Museum.

The Marvellous Mary Merrifield display looks at the life and work of the remarkable pioneer who was a self-taught colour researcher, an algologist and a fashion writer too.

Included in the display are rarely-seen extracts of Merrifield’s travel diary and letters recently discovered in The Keep Archives. These letters have since been transcribed by art historian Alexandra Loske-Page who curated the display.

“Mary is amazing,” said Alexandra. “In the field of colour chemistry, she is the first woman, certainly in this country, to have quite such a publishing output. It’s a great achievement because she was self-educated; there was no access to any higher education or university for her. We’re very lucky that she lived in Brighton.”

As well as her work on colour, Merrifield is known for her work as an algologist – someone who studies algae, a group of aquatic organisms. Rules of Victorian society restricted female scientists to the collection of plants and algae only. Seeing this as an opportunity, Merrifield became an authority in the study of seaweed, wrote many papers for scientific journals and came to be considered one of the leading algologists in Britain.

In her legacy there remains Rytiphlaea Merrifieldiae, an Australian algae named after her, and a collection of plants on display at the Natural History Museum in London and the Booth Museum of Natural History here in Brighton.

Alexandra’s display in the Booth Museum now champions Merrifield, whose work also includes transcribing and publishing the works of 15th century Italian painter Cennino Cennini and travelling France and Italy by government commission to research the make-up of early pigments and Italian painting methods.

Merrifield published a variety of books on her own research not only into the fields of art and natural history but dress history too. Dress as a Fine Art (1984) utilised her knowledge of art and science to validate the study of fashion and raise it in seriousness as a topic, challenging stereotypes about its intellectuality.


Notes for editors

About the Booth Museum


The Booth Museum is all about birds, butterflies, fossils, and bones. Founded as a Victorian collector’s private museum, the Booth Museum, part of Brighton & Hove City Council, now brings natural history to life with interactive displays and ‘hands on’ activities.

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