Book Reviews - Autumn 2023

Naturalists Unknown

Lives marked by discovery and erasure

By Perri Klass | November 16, 2023
Renee Grayson/Flickr
Renee Grayson/Flickr

Mischievous Creatures: The Forgotten Sisters Who Transformed Early American Science by Catherine McNeur; Basic Books, 432 pp., $32.50 

What drives the human impulse to collect and sort and categorize nature? In her new dual biography, Mischievous Creatures, Catherine McNeur explores this question as she traces the lives of entomologist Margaretta Hare Morris and botanist Elizabeth Carrington Morris. The sisters, born at the very end of the 18th century, spent their adult lives collecting and observing and experimenting—lives that McNeur, an environmental historian, uses as the basis for her inquiry into American science in the early Republic, when professional societies were forming, and the lines dividing “amateur” enthusiasts and collectors from professional scientists were just being drawn.

Margaretta and Elizabeth grew up in Germantown, near Philadelphia, where they explored the nearby Wissahickon Creek, a tributary of the Schuylkill River, and were tutored by enthusiastic naturalists connected with the new Academy of Natural Sciences, founded in 1812 (with no female members). The sisters sorted and classified the plants and insects they found, and they formed their own networks as they corresponded and exchanged specimens with other naturalists. Out of their observations and explorations, they wrote and published scientific articles, as well as popular advice columns on how to apply science in domestic life, even on how women could modify their footwear so as to move unencumbered on a botanizing expedition.

Margaretta was interested specifically in agricultural pests. McNeur details a scientific controversy over the Hessian fly, which was devastating wheat crops. Margaretta observed the flies laying their eggs at the head of the wheat, where those eggs might therefore be preserved among the seeds. In 1840, her cousin Robert Hare presented her observations to the American Philosophical Society (again, no women). In the subsequent controversy over the validity of the findings, some critics dwelled on Margaretta’s gender. She responded to the attacks vigorously, eloquently, and publicly, defending her research.

McNeur interrogates each phase of the Morris sisters’ careers with the consideration of how scientific knowledge, supposedly so objective, is actually shaped by the question of who gets to participate, who gets credit, and who gets remembered—and how. Her approach is often enlightening, although at times the analysis becomes tangled. For example, Margaretta was delighted to receive a visit in 1849 from Louis Agassiz, the prominent Harvard zoologist. She had her gardener dig a trench around a fruit tree to demonstrate that the larvae of the 17-year cicadas, which would not emerge until 1851, were feeding on the tree’s roots. She convinced Agassiz that she was right, and one year later, he supported her for membership in the nascent American Association for the Advancement of Science. In his 1857 book, The Natural History of the United States of America, he referenced the life cycle of the cicada, “so fully traced by Miss M. H. Morris.”

Thus, Margaretta became one of the first two women elected to the Association. (The other was Maria Mitchell, an astronomer who discovered a comet in 1847.) But credit and memory are complicated. McNeur points out that although Agassiz was good to Margaretta, when we judge him by today’s standards, we remember him for his racist scientific theories. McNeur then applies a different and perhaps extreme standard in criticizing Margaretta’s failure to credit in her reports the gardener who dug the trench around the fruit tree. “Margaretta’s erasure of her gardener’s labor was not unique,” McNeur writes. “In stepping into the actively forming power structure of professional science, Margaretta intuited that she was expected to act like her peers in order to gain standing in their community. This meant knowing who was and was not supposed to get credit.” Credit preoccupies McNeur throughout her book—who got it and who didn’t, and what that pattern reveals about the forces that shaped 19th-century American science.

McNeur does a wonderful job of explicating the scientific jousts and disagreements in which Margaretta, particularly, took part. Along with her discovery that cicada larvae feed on tree roots, Margaretta noted that some larvae were much smaller than others. In her observations, she repeatedly posited that these smaller larvae belonged to a different species—one officially “described” in the literature, after the cicadas emerged in 1851, by two male scientists, who named it after themselves. “These two men, who certainly benefited from Margaretta’s close observations from a period of over three decades, have achieved a sort of scientific immortality as their names are repeated by cicada researchers and enthusiasts more than a century and a half later.” Thanks to McNeur’s detailed account of the cicada research in Scientific American in 2021, the species may now be renamed for its discoverer, finally bestowing on Margaretta the entomological immortality she earned.

This would be particularly fitting, since McNeur contends that as women, the sisters were “erased” from American natural history, cheated of the scientific prominence they deserved. They were not marginalized during their lives; their story includes appearances by many of the figures who defined 19th-century American natural science, from Agassiz to the prominent Harvard botanist Asa Gray, who corresponded extensively with Elizabeth and relied on her specimens. There is even a correspondence involving Charles Darwin. In 1855, fellow scientists solicited from Margaretta a letter in which she described her observation that water beetles can transport fish eggs from pond to pond. Darwin, who at the time was preoccupied with the study of species distribution, read Margaretta’s letter but rejected her observation, even though, as it turned out, she was correct. The two sisters were wealthy, white, and well connected, McNeur writes, but from the point of view of the historical record, and “they were practically invisible.”

Margaretta published under her own name in the scientific literature of the time, but Elizabeth, though she published prolifically, preferred the safety of pseudonyms. Writing as “E. S.” in the American Agriculturist, she offered recipes and food-handling advice and urged her readers to rise early in the morning. Margaretta also contributed to this publication, which was attempting to reach women, urging “that a basic understanding of insects and their life cycles could help housewives avoid a host of disasters.” Margaretta too sometimes employed a pseudonym, writing for the general public as “Old Lady.”

McNeur takes us through the sisters’ scientific careers but also through their lives, from the romantic poems they copied into their albums as young women to their increasing physical frailty as they lived together through their 60s. Most of all, she communicates their joy in the natural world. Readers will come away wishing that they could visit the sisters’ home and garden—a historic site that today, in keeping with McNeur’s theme of erasure, is marked by not so much as a plaque. At least Elizabeth has an alga species named for her—Cladophora morrisiae, named in her honor by a botanist at Trinity College in Dublin, William Henry Harvey, who like many other scientists received North American specimens from the well-networked and generous Miss Morris. And perhaps Margaretta will finally get her cicada.

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