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Late Bloomer: Trailblazing 18th-Century Woman Botanist Finally Honored with Namesake

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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jeanne baret

An illustration of Jeanne Baret

In the 18th century, not yet 30 years old, she became the first woman to travel around the world. Along the way she helped collect thousands of plant specimens, some of which were new species. And she did it all dressed as a man.

In her own lifetime, French botanist Jeanne Baret fought for recognition of her contributions to science. Now, University of Utah botanist Eric Tepe has named a newly identified relative of the potato after Baret—the first species to bear her name.

Tepe learned of Baret in December 2011, while listening to an NPR interview with Glynis Ridley, who recently published a biography of the intrepid cross-dressing plantswoman. In the interview, Ridley mentioned that despite Baret’s discoveries she has never been honored with a botanical namesake. Tepe realized he could do something to change that.

In 2010, while analyzing dried and pressed plants at an herbarium in Cincinnati, Ohio, Tepe noticed that some vines from Peru labeled Solanum chimborazense had larger flowers and more variably sized leaves than typical Solanum chimborazense, which is generally found in a small region of Ecuador. Solanum is a large and diverse genus of plants that includes the potato, tomato and eggplant. On a field expedition to Peru in October, Tepe found the same vines he had studied in the herbarium growing in the wild. Genetic analysis confirmed that the vines belonged to a species distinct from Solanum chimborazense and the other members of the Solanum genus. Evidently, the preserved specimens in Ohio had been mislabeled. Every new species needs a name and, after hearing the NPR interview, Tepe settled on Solanum baretiae. Tepe, his colleague Lynn Bohs and Ridley published a paper on the new species in the January issue of PhytoKeys.

Baret nearly received the same distinction more than 200 years ago. She was the housekeeper and lover of naturalist Philibert Commerson, who was asked to join French admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s expedition around the world. At the time, a royal ordinance forbade women from traveling on naval ships. So the lovers decided to disguise Baret as a man and sneak her aboard as Commerson’s assistant. Jeanne Baret took the somewhat uninspired nom de plume of “Jean” Baret and probably bound her breasts and wore baggy clothes to conceal her figure. But there was only so much privacy aboard the ship. Eventually the crewmen outed Baret as a woman. In her new biography, Ridley proposes that the crewmen raped Baret upon revealing her identity. Baret and Commerson left the expedition in Mauritius, where the ill Commerson died. After marrying an officer in the French army, Baret made her way back to France, claimed her part of Commerson’s will and earned a pension for her work on Bougainville’s expedition. Perhaps the expedition’s most famous discovery is the popular bougainvillea vine, which adorns many a trellis and fence around the world today.

Before he died, Commerson noted in his journals that he intended to name a plant he discovered on Madagascar Baretia. But it turned out that other explorers had already discovered and named the same species. The plant Commerson chose as Baret’s namesake is known today as Turraea. Individual Turraea plants typically have leaves of diverse shapes and sizes—as do individual Solanum baretiae plants. On a single Solanum baretiae plant, for example, one can find simple leaves with one main leaf body and more complex leaves made of seven smaller leaflets. Solanum baretiae also blooms in flowers of different colors, usually white or violet. Since the new species is so variable in appearance, Tepe thought it was a fitting tribute to a woman who disguised herself as a man in the name of science.

“Every explorer risks something, but few of the most famous botanical explorers experienced as much danger and hardship as Baret,” Tepe says. “I thought she deserved something for her contribution to botany and her bravery.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

About the Author: Ferris Jabr is an associate editor focusing on neuroscience and psychology. Follow on Twitter @ferrisjabr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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