Women are making an increasingly visual presence in the world of aquatics, and the hobby has a long history of female pioneers. So why don’t we hear more about them, asks Ingrid Allan.
It may not feel like it when you’re lugging buckets of water around or scratching your head over a mysterious fatality, but we fish-keepers have never had it so easy. With thousands of species readily available and a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, it’s important to be thankful to those who made it all possible. Much has been made of the Amanos and Axelrodis of this world, but with march being Women’s History Month I wanted to shed a bit of light on some of the amazing contributions that female ichthyologists, zoologists, and biologists have made to the hobby.
Pre-1900s: An emerging science in an age of suffrage During the reign of Queen Victoria, public interest in the natural sciences grew to previously unseen levels, not only among the landed gentry but in the emerging middle classes too. The publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859 shattered many previously held beliefs about the natural world and heralded a new age of more enlightened evolutionary biology. Combine this with new developments in transport, taxidermy and preservation, and suddenly every man of means wanted to discover a new species.
This wasn’t necessarily good news for women. They still couldn’t vote or own property and they had limited freedom outside the control of their husbands and fathers. Those for whom an education — let alone one in the sciences — was given willingly were few and far between. To an unlucky majority of young women at the time, such as the English writer, explorer and autodidact zoologist Mary Kingsley (1862-1900), a girl’s formal education was deemed entirely unnecessary even among many of the wealthier Victorians. However, Kingsley was determined and forged her own scientific path, thanks to her father’s vast library and the academic connections of her brother Charley. Though she went on to study medicine, her parents’ ill health forced her to spend a lot of her young life caring for them. It was only when both died in 1892 that she found herself free to explore, aided by a sizeable inheritance.
Travelling around Africa as a solo European woman without the accompaniment of a husband or missionary group was highly unusual at the time, but Mary Kingsley still managed to bring back over 65 species of fi sh. Most of these had never been formally described and seven of them were entirely new to science. Three species were named after her, including the Tailspot climbingperch, Ctenopoma kingsleyae. Kingsley can be credited with much of the early interest in mormyrids and African spiny eels, which she collected on her travels. Had she not caught typhoid at the tender age of 37 while treating POWs as a volunteer nurse in the second Boer war, she would doubtless have uncovered many more.