Maria Sibylla Merian: First person in history to record insect metamorphosis

From Dream to Reality
It starts with an individual action
That leads to collective power, and translates to exponential impact!

The United Nations General Assembly has recently adopted an innovative and leading-edge resolution to encourage women and girls to achieve gender equality and empowerment in the male-dominated discipline of science. Resulting from this, they have declared 11 February as  International Day of Women and Girls in Science. In his opening statement at the adoption of the resolution, Prince Adnan El-Hashemite, Dean of the Royal Academy of Science International Trust, highlighted the importance and impact of achieving parity and equality for women and girls in science.

I welcome today’s adoption of the resolution on the “International Day of Women and Girls in Science”. It demonstrates the continuing resolve and commitment of Member States to eliminate gender inequality in science, employment, opportunities and education.

The University of Queensland is also honouring the increasing number of women and girls embracing all aspects of science. Many celebrated the inaugural International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

They're tracking dinosaurs, treating epilepsy, battling superbugs, figuring out quantum biophysics and working to save the environment for future generations - meet The University of Queensland's women scientists. Today is the inaugural United Nations Day for Women and Girls in Science, and UQ's female science researchers, academics and promoters are delighted to have an opportunity to share the reasons they love science.

Claire Hooker, in her eye-opening publication, Irresistible forces: Australian women in science, deconstructs the long-held notion there have never been many Australian women scientists of any significance.  She draws attention to a number of Australian women scientists, covering disciplines such as natural history, entomology, geology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and the medical sciences. She reflects:

I have tried to capture the experiences  of  Australian women scientists: their motivations, their pleasures and frustrations, their successes and failures. This book celebrates these women's accomplishments and their passionate commitment to work that was difficult, frustrating and, for brief moments, glorious.1   

The Fryer Library holds material on Australian women scientists, but one of our most precious treasures illustrates the work of the German-born naturalist and artist, Maria Sibylla Merian, (1647-1717), Erucarum ortus, alimentum et paradoxa metamorphosis. 

Portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian taken from 500 DM Banknote

Maria Sibylla Merian, often considered the mother of entomology, was born in Frankfurt, April 1647.  Her father, Matthaus Merian the Elder, (1593-1650), was a Swiss engraver and publisher.  Her stepfather, still-life painter Jacob Marrel, 1614-1681, tutored the young Merian, especially in the tradition of ‘floregia’ (flower books). As a young child, she often collected plants and insects, particularly caterpillars, moths and butterflies for her drawings.

She spent most of her working life in the Netherlands and South America, and has been acclaimed as the first person in history to record insect metamorphosis through her exquisitely artistic but scientifically correct hand-painted illustrations. Translated as The wonderful transformation and singular plant-food of caterpillars, Merian 'first presented an accurate depiction of insect metamorphosis against the prevailing concept of spontaneous generation theory'.2
Plate 40, XXI and VI taken from Erucarum ortus, alimentum et paradoxa metamorphosis.

McCourt positions Merian within 17th century scientific investigation, a male-dominated  discipline of research and scholarship and contends:

I argue that Merian employed the language of art to convey the scientific concept of metamorphosis, a process widely misunderstood by seventeenth century Europe.3

The Fryer Library welcomes academics, researchers and students of entomology, natural history and botanical illustration, as well as the general public at large to explore and enjoy this exquisite item.

The Fryer Library Reading Room is located on Level 4, Duhig Tower (Building 2), The University of Queensland, St Lucia campus.

- Cassie Doyle, Fryer Library

Visit Fryer Library to see our copy of Maria Sibylla Merian's Erucarum ortus, alimentum et paradoxa metamorphosis on display in the FW Robinson Reading Room.


1.  Claire Hooker, Irresistible forces: Australian women in science. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2004, p. 6

2.  RL McCourt, Between art and science: The Entomology of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). St Lucia, Queensland, 2012. p. 1

3.  ibid, abstract

Last updated:
15 January 2017