Darwin sought to not only produce a new scientific truth, but also to put an end to polygenism, the current scientific discourse on human origins that gave tacit and at times explicit support for slavery: ‘... when the principle of evolution is generally accepted, as it surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death.’ (Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, p. 235)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Audubon's Birds and some often Overlooked Contributions of Women to Natural History

There was one of those interesting coincidences in the past weeks that reminded me of a neglected portion of the all too brief essay that is Until Darwin.  The first was the typically fine broadcast of  Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time on Women and Enlightenment Science.  The second was the record breaking auction sale of Audubon's Birds of America (see Audubon's Birds of America: The world's most expensive book and Birds of America sets £7m sales record at Sotheby's). 

Maria Martin's life is one that is well described by Bragg and his guests.  As with most women of the era, advanced formal education was denied her.  On the other hand, science and research at the time was not something done in universities or laboratories, but in the home.  As the managers of the domestic space and through their relationships with their husbands or lovers, women had access to scientific research, often taking the lead but recieving little or no credit.
Charleston, with the steeple of St. John's Church, forms the backdrop
for Audubon's Long-Billed Curlew
 The same can be found in more recent academic works, particularly those of the mid-century before the days of PCs.  The preface for many books will end with a appreciation for the contribution of the spouse to the completion of the work, from the care of the household to "discussions" about the work to its actual editing and typing.

Here is an excerpt from Until Darwin on the connection of Maria Martin and Audubon.  At some point, it would be nice to write something more extensive on this topic.

Before Darwin, the great adversary of polygenism was John Bachman, although he is perhaps best remembered now for his collaboration and friendship with James Audubon. In the Jeffersonian tradition, he too devoted his effort to education, science, and service. Bachman worked tirelessly on a wide range of activities, all the while keeping up a busy ministry. He founded the small liberal arts Newberry College in Newberry, South Carolina. Clearly Natural History held a special importance for Bachman. Teaching at the College of Charleston, he joined the ‘Circle of Naturalists’. Charleston became one of the centers of Natural History, attracting such notables as Agassiz and Audubon. Bachman's association with Audubon began through an almost chance encounter and grew into a life-long friendship, including the marriage of two of Bachman's daughters to Audubon's sons. They spent a great deal of time together collecting along the coastal plain of South Carolina and disputing their divergent ways of life. Bachman often admonished Audubon for his love of ‘gog and wine and snuff’. Maria Martin Bachman, who had married Bachman after the death of her sister --- Bachman's first wife--- found in Audubon's friendship the opportunity to become a notable Natural History painter and illustrator. Many of the backgrounds and detailed vegetation illustrations which put Audubon's birds in context were painted by Maria Martin. Her contributions included the beautifully and accurately detailed entomological drawings that accompany Audubon's birds. This she learned on her on by studying the abundant specimen available to her as well as the drawings in Say's Entomology of North America. Her work with Audubon was common knowledge. One of her descendants noted in Charleston Receipts that ‘It was she who painted many of the backgrounds for Audubon's famous paintings’.97 All this while she gave birth to 14 children, suffered from tic douloureux, a nerve disease that produces a severe stabbing pain on one side of the face and is often triggered by the slightest touch or movement which causes the sufferer to wince involuntarily and can itself sometimes increase the severity of the attack. It is considered one of the most painful chronic conditions in found in humans. Audubon wrote of her that "Miss Martin with her superior talents, assists us greatly in the way of drawing; the insects she has drawn are, perhaps, the best I've seen."98
97.  Junior League of Charleston. Recipe for Soused Fish, in Charleston Receipts (Charleston, S.C.: Walker Evans & Cogswell Co., 1950), p. 72. . ‘Receipts’ rather than ‘recipes’, they say, ‘to designate time-honored dishes according to ancestral wishes’.
98.  Letter to Victor Audubon, December 24, 1833, in F. H. Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist: A History of his Life and Times, vol. 2 (New York: Appleton, 1917), p. 62. See also Bonta, M.M., Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1991).
And this excerpt as well from my entry on John Bachman in the Dictionary of Early American Philosophers (Thoemmes Continuum, 2010).
The war years were difficult for Bachman. The blockades prevented normal scientific communication and no one could avoid the constant fighting in and around Charleston. In the midst of the war, Bachman published his last major essay, “Characteristics of Genera and Species, as Applicable to the Doctrine of Unity in the Human Race” but Darwin had already brought an end to the polygenic/monogenic dispute. Maria Martin died in 1863, and one of Bachman's sons was mortally wounded fighting for the Confederacy. Now, with Maria dead and Sherman's forces advancing on Charleston, Bachman fully realized his own pre-war warning about “the duties and dangers of the moment.” The new bell of his church was melted down for Confederate ammunition as the city came under attack in the final siege and capture of Charleston that left Bachman's church, school, and library in ruins. With them, much of Bachman's papers and collections, as well as Maria's sketches and paintings, were lost. Bachman attempted to flee to Newberry College, but while journeying there his party was detained by Union troopers. During the encounter, he was badly beaten and left with a paralyzed arm.
With the end of the Civil War, Bachman concentrated his efforts on his role as pastor of St. John's, retiring in 1871. Bachman had signed his essay to war profiteers as “Marcus Curtius,” the Roman hero who rode his horse into the abyss to save Rome from the chasm that had opened in the Forum. An alter was raised over the spot and it is appropriate that John Bachman, who was often called the “Old Roman” by his friends, was himself buried under the alter of his church. In his life and work, he personified many of the contradictions of his educated and religious contemporaries who promoted both social reform and the preservation of archaic institutions.
Of course, we must end by noting that according to the 1860 Charleston Census of Slaves, John and Maria Martin Bachman owned five humans, with John possessing one and Maria Martin listed as owning four.  Because science was a domestic enterprise during the Enlightenment --- and therefore women were provided access to scientific studies despite being barred from formal education --- the administration of slaves in the household would coincide with the production and care of scientific instruments and specimens, the upkeep of gardens, the organization of observations, the parlor meetings of Natural History societies, and all other activities that took place within the domestic space.  Scarlett O'Hara was not only a fictional proto-mainstream feminist, but also the manager/overseer of the large number of slaves working in the productive domestic/industrial space of the plantation house and grounds.

The stain of slavery is permeates in the 19th Century - from the cotton supplying the Engels family' textile mill to the nightmares of Brazilian slavery that Darwin regularly suffered at Down House to the streets of Charleston, where freedmen and slaves wore badges identifying their occupation and the slaver.  It's effects are to be found wherever one looks, and can be found on the pages of Maria Bachman's drawings, which retain a certain aura of authenticity as having been held by her, but they were also no doubt held by the hands of slaves just as certainly as they bear the stains of the Civil War and the destruction of John and Maria Bachman's library, church, and schools.

Here are some of the few works by Maria Martin Bachman that survived the destruction of Charleston and its aftermath. 

The contribution of "Mrs. Gliddon" to Types of Mankind in a later post.

See also:
A Short Biography of John Bachman (1790-1874)

Audubon's Birds and some often Overlooked Contributions of Women to Natural History

A brief additional note to Audubon's Birds and some often Overlooked Contributions of Women to Natural History

Maria Martin Bachman's sketches and paintings for Audubon: On-line Exhibition from the Charleston County Public Library

Review of America’s Other Audubon (Brain Pickings Blog)

Podcast - Charleston's Women Naturalists: Jennifer Scheetz, Archivist, Charleston Museum

(Updated November 18, 2017; September 21, 2019)