Mary Eleanor Bowes
Plant Science

International Day of Women and Girls in Science: Badass Botanists

On 11th February, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is observed to promote and celebrate women and girls leading and working on ground-breaking scientific research. While much work has been done to encourage women to pursue careers in science and bridge inequalities, we still have a way to go to make the scientific space comfortable for all genders.

In this blog post, we’re meeting two badass botanists who overcame so much to pursue their passion for plants. The first being Mary Eleanor Bowes, whose botanical career was cut short due to scandal, abuse, kidnapping and a law changing divorce. The second being Jeanne Baret, whose scandalous relationship with her employer led her to becoming the first woman to circumnavigate the globe disguised as a man and collect over 6000 plant specimens.

Mary Eleanor Bowes

[TW: domestic abuse]

Mary Eleanor Bowes, born in 1749, was the only child of coal baron George Bowes. At that time, only boys were well educated, but George employed tutors for Bowes, ensuring she received education in languages, the arts and writing. An intelligent woman, Bowes went on to live a life of botany, brutality and liberation.

When Bowes was 11, she inherited Gibside in County Durham and became the wealthiest heiress in Britain. She first married John Lyon, the 9th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. Together they had five children, but after just ten years of marriage, John contracted tuberculosis and died on a journey to Portugal. Following his death, Bowes took back control of her fortune and pursued her passion for botany.

In the 1700s, it was fashionable to find new and rare plant species abroad and bring them back to display. Bowes commissioned Scottish botanist William Paterson to discover plants in South Africa and had an Orangery built at Gibside to display them in, which is still available to view today. She also had a large collection of dried plants but it is thought many of these were lost in a sale in the 1900s.

Unfortunately, Bowes’ passion was squashed and the Orangery fell into disrepair after she married her second husband. After marrying Bowes, Andrew Stoney attempted to take control of her fortune. When he found she had secretly had him sign a prenuptial agreement, he kidnapped, and mentally and physically abused her and her staff. After eight years, she escaped Stoney, filed for divorce and won, paving the way for the reform of English divorce law.

Although Mary Eleanor Bowes was never able to become a natural historian in her own right, her passion for botany lives on at Gibside. While history remembers her as “The Unhappy Countess”, her title of “the most intelligent female botanist of the age” is how I choose to remember her. To find out more about the life of Mary Eleanor Bowes, I would recommend Wendy Moore’s book, Wedlock.

Jeanne Baret

A drawing of Jeanne Baret disguised as a man, holding

Four years after Mary Eleanor Bowe was born to a wealthy baron in England, Jeanne Baret was born to an illiterate labourer in regional France. Baret was also orphaned in her teen years and went on to become a housekeeper to Philibert Commerçon, a naturalist, after his wife died.

Baret allegedly gave birth to Commerçon’s second child during this time, but he was never listed as the father and the child was given up for adopted soon after the pair moved to Paris together. Commerçon made Baret his assistant, and it is thought that he educated Baret and taught her how to write in order to help him with his studies.

In 1765, Commerçon was invited by explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville to join his circumnavigation of the globe. However, Commerçon required Baret’s assistance as a nurse because of his poor health, but as women were not allowed on French navy ships, she would not be permitted to join him. Pretending not to know Commerçon, Baret joined the voyage disguised as a man.

The voyage saw the pair collecting specimens from Rio de Janeiro to Patagonia to Tahiti. During the voyage, Commerçon’s health deteriorated and he spent most of his time aboard the ship with a badly infected ulcer on his leg. Baret was left to do most of the manual labour, collecting over 6000 specimens. One particular specimen was named Bougainvillea by Commerçon, a plant species now popular across much of Europe.

Rumours began to spread that Baret was a woman and in Tahiti in 1768 she was found out. Commerçon and Baret worked together until his death, collecting plants in Mauritius, Madagascar and Bourbon Island. She independently settled on Mauritius in 1770. At the time, her presence on that voyage was a scandal. She is now celebrated as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe and credited with the European discovery of many famous species. Find out more about her life in Danielle Clode’s, In Search of the Woman who Sailed the World.

Reading list

Mary Eleanor Bowes: National Trust and Scottish Field

Jeanne Baret: seekapor


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