How do we science? / The HumanitSEAS

Seaweed Hunting in Petticoats

Let’s open with a game.  The following quote recommends appropriate attire for seaweed collecting.  (Stay with me, people.)  Who do you think wrote it, and when?

Feel all the luxury of not having to be afraid of your boots; neither of wetting nor destroying them.  Feel all the comfort of walking steadily forward, the very strength of the soles making you tread firm— confident in yourself, and let me add, in your dress.”

Sounds like a combination of Henry David Thoreau and Tim Gunn writing about beachcombing fashion on a blog read by approximately two people, right?  Would you believe that the answer is an English woman in the Victorian era, mother of ten and author of a popular book of children’s fables?  Probably not: Victorian ladies wore three petticoats and hosted perfect tea parties and minded the children.  Surely they didn’t go tromping through the wrack zone searching for clumpy wet algae in boots treated with fisherman’s oil?

They did if their name was Margaret Gatty (1809-1873).  She is better remembered today as the author of Parables from Nature, a book of didactic stories for children, but Margaret Gatty was also one of the most important phycologists of her time.  Amazingly, she achieved this distinction while remaining a respected woman in her community during a time period with razor-thin boundaries for femininity.

Wood engraving of Margaret Gatty.  Image from

Wood engraving of Margaret Gatty. Image from

Gatty lived in Ecclesfield, England, with her husband, the local vicar.  Her life was as ordinary as that sentence suggests, until she was sent to the coastal town of Hastings in 1848 to recover from pregnancy complications.  Feeling restless without her usual responsibilities, Gatty became fascinated by Dr. William Harvey’s book Phycologia Britannica, which documented British seaweeds (as well as zoophytes, an obsolete term referring to animals, such as anemones, that resembled plants).  She began spending days at the coast, attaching scientific names to the seaweeds she observed and making detailed notes.

Gatty returned home after about five months, and that’s when things could have gotten dicey.  A Victorian woman, most especially a vicar’s wife, was expected to let nothing come between her duty to serve as the moral center of her family.  Margaret Gatty’s particular genius was to insinuate her newly-found scientific interest into family life.  Her children helped sort and identify seaweeds, as well as accompanied her during what became frequent visits to the seashore, and her husband Alfred happily negotiated logistics with her publisher.  When publicly discussing her scientific work, Gatty couched her science writing as a means to support her family.  With ten children, this certainly had merit, but the fact was that Gatty found great intellectual satisfaction from discovery.  As she wrote to her sister-in-law, a “love of ‘routine’ … makes in private life half the world (?) commonplace and dull! … [Y]our seaweed hours will be a sort of necessary repast to you!”  (Emphasis and parenthesis unchanged from the original.)  Such sentiments hardly paint a picture of a woman dutifully writing to boost the family coffers.

Two seaweed specimens preserved by Gatty: Chorda filum (left) and Bellotia eriophorum (right). Gatty's personal herbarium is now part of the University of St. Andrews Herbarium in Scotland. Images from

Two seaweed specimens preserved by Gatty: Chorda filum (left) and Bellotia eriophorum (right). Gatty’s personal herbarium is now part of the University of St. Andrews Herbarium in Scotland. Images from

Natural history was quite fashionable during Gatty’s time, and some historians argue that the modern distinction between natural history and science did not exist in the mid-1800s.  Many women were in fact full participants in natural history as specimen collectors.  However, this did not always equate to social acceptance of the hobby and virtually never resulted in adequate recognition.  Margaret Gatty was already an established literary presence, having published Parables from Nature in 1855, when she published the two-volume British Seaweeds in 1863.  The book contained images and detailed descriptions of about two hundred species of seaweeds, based on fourteen years of collection, study, and correspondence with other phycologists, both male and female.  In British Seaweeds and in her assertive communication with other scientists, Gatty made it clear that she viewed herself as an expert to be respected for her knowledge.  None of Gatty’s surviving correspondences indicate that she felt excluded from the world of science.  Perhaps this was because she got the last laugh: although barred from formal societies due to her gender, Gatty was invited to publish a letter to the editor in the renowned The Annals and Magazine of Natural History in 1857.  One of the letters she received in response addressed “the celebrated ‘Margaret Gatty’, of whom I and everyone else taking an interest in Marine Zoology and Botany, have heard so much, of course.”  In addition to being a cute addendum, the “of course” emphasizes that Gatty’s authority was widely recognized.

During her life, Gatty clearly marched her seaweed hiking boots to the pinnacle of algae studies in Britain.  She did so with confidence and intelligence while, as I believe cannot be overstated, maintaining her family and social role in a culture obsessed with gender norms.  The topic of women in science continues to be relevant, and Margaret Gatty is a fascinating example of a woman who, within the limits of her time, managed to maximize her personal and professional lives.

For more info, check out:

Revealing New Worlds: Three Victorian Women Naturalists by Suzanne Le-May Sheffield.  Published in 2001 by Routledge, New York.

Cover image from

One thought on “Seaweed Hunting in Petticoats

  1. Pingback: Ruth Patrick’s Aquatic Pollution Revolution | UNder the C

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