Beatrix Potter – Undiscovered mycologist?

You may know British writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter for her creation of the much beloved character Peter Rabbit. But did you know that she was also a passionate mycologist?

Beatrix Potter in a family portrait alongside her father and brother
Beatrix Potter featured in a family portrait alongside her father and brother

During her early twenties, prior to publishing her first book, Beatrix Potter produced hundreds of botanical illustrations. In addition to drawing mushrooms and fungi, also began collecting and observing mushroom specimens.

Potter developed a particular interest in how mushrooms reproduce. Eventually, this which led her to write her theories and findings in a paper titled: “On the Germination of the Spores of Agarincineae”. It even included her illustrations!

But what stood in the way of Potter and gaining scientific acclamation?

Beatrix Potter attempted to submit her paper to the Linnaen Society of London, the world’s oldest active biological society. At the time, the society denied membership to women. It did not allow them to access the scientific library and even forbid them from attending presentations of scientific papers.

As a result, her paper was ‘laid on the table’, an old society term meaning it was received, but not openly considered. She withdrew the paper, and never resubmitted. However, her scientific legacy lives on through her many illustrations which are on display at several British museums. To this day, mycologists still consult the illustrations for their incredible level of accuracy.

Potter then went on to publish her iconic children’s book, ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, in 1902. It was an instant sensation, and has since sold over 40 million copies worldwide since it’s first printing.

After her death, almost all of her property was left to the National Trust. Her legacy ensures the conservation of much of the land that now makes up the Lake District National Park.

This article first appeared as part of the ‘Inspired By…’ series featured in The Niche, Summer 2023. The Niche is the British Ecological Society’s quarterly membership magazine. If you’re not a member but would like to subscribe to The Niche, join us today.