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The Marvellous Mary Merrifield: one of the few Victorian women in science not lost to history

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Winter has finally drawn to a close, and with longer days and sunnier skies, spring has also brought a small new display to the Booth Museum: The Marvellous Mary Merrifield.

Mary Philadelphia Merrifield (1804-1889) was a remarkable self-taught artist, naturalist and writer who spent most of her life in Brighton. She made significant contributions to colour and pigment research, algology (the study of algae) and the creation of the natural history collections at Brighton Museum. This neat little display celebrates her contribution to scientific research by women in the 19th century.

It’s not often that we see 19th century women celebrated for their contributions to scientific fields, however. In Victorian Britain, the idea of women partaking in any ‘serious’ science besides geology and botany was ridiculed, with rules of society restricting them only to the collection of plants and algae. An assumption that the female brain simply couldn’t cope with maths, experimental proofs or lab procedures left them largely excluded from scientific endeavors – or so we thought. Research carried out earlier this decade by author and academic Richard Holmes unearthed a series of letters, documents and rare publications that suggest Victorian ladies had a far more fruitful relationship with the Royal Society than previously assumed. It turns out that women in fact played a significant part in many scientific team projects, working both as colleagues and assistants – though were only ever acknowledged in their family capacities as wives, sisters or daughters.

Locally, the discovery of prehistoric Iguanodon fossil bones is an exemplary tale of female groundbreaker relegated merely to ‘wife of’. Mary Mantell lived in Sussex with her husband, physician, geologist, and paleontologist Gideon Mantell. A blue plaque on the exterior of the Mantells’ home in Lewes today credits Gideon for discovering the fossil bones of the prehistoric Iguanodon in Cuckfield in the 1800s. Granted, Gideon’s unearthing of the gargantuan skeleton and attempts to reconstruct the structure and life of the prehistoric beast made serious waves, kick-starting the scientific study of dinosaurs. However, in recent years it is in fact Mary who has been credited for discovering the very first Iguanodon fossils, presenting them to her husband who later called for further excavation.  She was also the talented artist behind the careful fossil illustrations that appeared in Gideon’s publication Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex (1827). Where is Mary’s spot on the blue plaque, we ask?

The names of many of the Booth Museum’s female collectors have been lost to history, overwritten by their husband’s titles. Leopold Grey is a prime example. Even the all-female group of Victorian milliners who handcrafted the dioramas we see filling the Booth Museum’s walls were never officially credited for their work, information on them now proving difficult to find.

It’s perhaps time, then, that we use the Booth Museum as a site for championing the one half of the human race so heavily overlooked in the past. The Marvellous Mary Merrifield was installed to coincide with our highly successful STEM Discovery Day, which saw the galleries packed out with hundreds of girls raring to celebrate the wonder women of science.

This small display will now commemorate a woman worth remembering for a wealth of endeavors. Not only a shaker and mover in the field of algology, Mary Merrifield translated and published the works of 15th century Italian painter Cennino Cennini; was commissioned to travel France and Italy to transcribe manuscripts on colour and research make-up of early pigments and Italian methods of painting; published a variety of books on her own research into the fields of art, fashion and natural history; learned Danish and Swedish in order to keep up with botanical research from these countries; helped to arrange the natural history galleries at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, the contents of which now live at the Booth Museum; and now has a species of marine algae named after her.

The diary of her European research journeys, in the form of letters to her husband and other family members in Brighton, have recently been discovered at The Keep archives. These letters have since been transcribed by Dr. Alexandra Loske, art historian and oral historian at the University of Sussex, with the help of volunteer researcher Natasha Romanova. Alexandra, quite the wonder woman herself, is the curator behind the Marvellous Mary Merrifield display. “Mary is amazing,” Alexandra tells us. “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 of course self-educated; there was no access to any higher education or university for her. It was mostly just empirical observation; looking; testing. We’re very lucky that she lived in Brighton.”

The case is available to view from now until around September.

Ruby McGonigle, Bookings Office and Retail Assistant at the Royal Pavilion & Museums