Today is Beatrix Potter’s birthday, the author most famous for her imaginative children’s books including The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She was born today in 1866, Peter Rabbit was published in 1902, and I, in 2021, only just read her beloved children’s work.
This doesn’t mean I don’t love Beatrix Potter. But, what I appreciate most about her is not just her work, but that Potter was first a scientist.
Prior to her children’s book career, she mostly studied mycology (mushrooms). She painted these fungi with watercolors, became a scientific illustrator, and even wrote a paper presented at a meeting of the famous Linnean Society. Though, as a woman, Potter was not allowed to attend.
It was only after these scientific beginnings that Potter started writing her famous children’s works, beginning with The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and authoring a staggering 30 books in total.
I actually first became familiar with Beatrix Potter through a similar female scientist turned children’s author who lived and worked in Grinnell, Iowa, the town where I went to college. This was Cornelia Clarke, born shortly after Potter in 1884. Clarke’s scientific career started in nature photography, but she also helped turn her photos of pets posed in clothing, imitating human activities, into a children’s book.
Cornelia Clarke and Beatrix Potter were certainly very different women, but both were scientists and children’s book illustrators (and, in Potter’s case, the writer as well). I am also incredibly thankful for both of them. I love that these women found their way in science at a time when women were often barred from doing so, and that they both also used their imaginative talents to convey this naturalist wonder to children.
They represent, both Potter and Clarke, minds imaginative and scientific in equal doses, often at the same time. Of course, after reading The Tale of Peter Rabbit for this post (listen to it read aloud here), I found the work to be delightful. Clarke’s images of her cats imitating humans are as well. For this delight, too, I am grateful.