She is a household name, the genius behind some of the most beloved characters in children’s literature, and a major inspiration to aspiring writers and artists everywhere. But consider an alternate universe where Beatrix Potter never created Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Squirrel Nutkin, Tom Kitten, or Jemima Puddle-Duck. An alternative universe where her original career plan panned out, and she became successful in an entirely different field instead. Imagine a world where we know and remember Beatrix Potter as a mycologist—a scientist who researches fungi.
From a young age, Beatrix Potter’s fascination with the natural world was fervent. She latched onto to anything that had to do with animals and plants. In 1887, when she was in her early twenties, she began illustrating mushrooms in watercolors for the first time. At that point in time, Potter was studying mushrooms as a special artistic interest, as one would paint watercolors of flowers or bowls of fruit—just for pleasure and for something to hang on the walls. According to Potter’s biographer Linda Lear, author of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, Potter did not even label these paintings: “Beatrix provided no Latin names for these early drawings, suggesting that she did not know them, and had selected them for their visual appeal.”
She would, however, eventually generate a small income for herself by designing decorative postcards with watercolors of nature. And her ambition and growing interest in fungi would eventually take her beyond the realm of a hobby and into pure research.
In the upcoming years, fungi would become something of an obsession for the future authoress who would one day be better known for her anthropomorphic rabbits. She would gradually form ideas of her own on how mushrooms and mold grew.
Coaching Potter along was a close long-time friend of the Potter family, Charles McIntosh, a fellow mycologist who had the intellect to recognize not only the young woman’s potential as a natural scientist, but also as a kindred spirit. Naturally, McIntosh was one of the first people Potter informed when, after years of research and various experiments, she’d at last developed her own theory of fungi germination. In an 1897 letter, she wrote to him, “I am doing some curious work with fungus spore, trying to draw up a paper with the assistance of my uncle Sir H. Roscoe. Have you ever suspected that there are intermediate species amongst Agarics and Boleti?”
Potter was reaching the point where she was ready to share her findings with the world, rather than just with McIntosh and a small selection of other likeminded individuals. She had her focus fixed in particular on the Linnean Society of London.
Founded back in 1788, the Linnean Society is London’s oldest and most established organization for discovery and progress in the natural sciences. In 1897, at age 31, Potter at last submitted a research paper for their consideration. The paper Potter submitted was titled “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae,” and it came with an impressive handmade illustration of its topic, flammulina velutipes. Due to her gender, Potter was forbidden from presenting her paper to the Society herself. Instead, English botanist George Edward Massee had to present it on her behalf on April 1, 1897.
Despite the sexist setbacks, there seemed to have been some positive reception to her paper, as evidenced in Potter’s letter to McIntosh in September 1897: “My paper was read at the Linnean Society and ‘well-received,’ according to Mr. Massee, but they say it requires more work in it before it is printed.” But Potter had experienced a second mortification when she realized that her mold samples, which had been at the center of her research, may have been contaminated. Potter had conducted many of her experiments in the kitchen at her parents' estate, and the hygiene and general atmosphere were less than ideal for a budding scientist.
Discouraged, Potter ultimately abandoned the project, and withdrew her paper from the Society’s queue. 100 years later, in 1997, the Linnean Society issued a formal apology for the sexism it displayed in barring Potter from an in-person exhibition of her own work.
One can feel sympathy for Potter’s thwarted hopes for a career in science. At the same time, the world collectively can feel a warped sort of gratitude for the course of events that turned Potter away from the laboratory and back to the drawing desk. Beatrix Potter would turn her attention to writing and illustrating children's books, the most beloved and memorable of which is The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She remains one of the world’s bestselling authors, and decades after her 1943 death, her books can be found on children's bookshelves around the world.
Sources: Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear; The Linnean Society of London