April 22, 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. In the five decades since that day was founded, many inspiring female environmentalists and naturalists have come to the fore helping us to better understand and save our world.
Vandana Shiva, Diane Fossey, Wangari Maathai, and Greta Thunberg, are but some of the many purposeful women who have left a lasting impression on our planet, facing down challenges such as biodiversity loss, species endangerment, land conversation, and climate change.
But these women stand on the shoulders of other women who came before them. Remarkable women in history who smashed stereotypes or simply side-stepped gender roles to satisfy their own intellectual curiosity.
So, as we recognize the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, let’s celebrate just some of the fearless women who brought the world to us in the first place.
Queen Hatshepsut (1479– 1458 BC)
Queen Hatshepsut, the sixth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, was one of the few—and by far the most successful—women to rule Egypt as pharaoh. She reigned for more than 20 years and some 14 centuries before Cleopatra, the next famed female pharaoh of ancient Egypt.
Following the death of her husband Thutmose II in 1479 BCE, Hatsheput claimed the pharaoh’s throne while acting as regent to her young step-son, Thutmose III.
Though early historians believed her to be an ambitious and vile usurper, more modern readings of her unlikely rise to power suggest she was forced into the role of king (likely due to a political threat to her young stepson’s royal claim.)
Regardless of how she came to rule Egypt, the pieces of her history that have been put together tell of an extraordinary woman who not only ruled over one of the more prosperous and peaceful times in Egypt’s history but was also an avid botanist.
The First Ancient Leader to Organize a Plant-Hunting Expedition
She instigated the world’s first recorded plant hunting expedition, which resulted in the gathering of live plants and trees brought back from far off lands, and re-planted in Egyptian soil.
When Hatshepsut came to power she was keen to develop the trading routes down the Red Sea. The Egyptians traded with neighboring civilizations such as those of the Fertile Crescent and the Indus Valley, but she wanted to open up routes to go even further.
The enterprising pharaoh commanded five ships to travel to the mysterious land of Punt, located somewhere along the Northeastern Coast of Africa.
Their orders were to gather valuable plants, animals, and precious goods, most notably the famous biblical resins frankincense (Boswellia) and myrrh (Commiphora).
Records on the Walls of an Ancient Temple
An image of the expedition is preserved on the walls of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri and is one of only three known Egyptian temple paintings of sea-going vessels.
It depicts the ships setting sail, arriving at Punt, and then loading their cargo of precious plants, animals, prepared resin, and 31 large live trees with roots carefully wrapped.
What’s also likely, according to several Egyptologists and geographers, is that Hatsheput’s plant expeditions and the Egyptian people’s subsequent accumulation of new botanical knowledge helped develop the country’s agriculture, the ancient Empire itself, and the world’s introduction to new and exciting plant life.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)
Hildegard of Bingen, also known as St. Hildegard and the Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German Benedictine abbess and Christian mystic and scholar.
A true polymath, she refused to be limited by the patriarchal precedent of the church (though she cleverly worked within their strictures and consistently claimed her knowledge came from the Divine.)
At a time when few women wrote or had their opinions heard, Hildegard created major works of philosophy, theology, medieval literature, musical composition, medicine, herbology, biology, and natural history, and advised and was consulted by various abbots, bishops, popes, and kings.
Spiritual Belief in Divine Feminine Wisdom
She is well-known for a number of spiritual concepts. The first, Viriditas, ‘greenness’, examines the idea of a cosmic life force infusing the natural world and highlights the belief that nature’s beauty is evidence of the Divine. The second, Sapientia, ‘Divine Wisdom’, and especially ‘feminine divine wisdom’, underscores the feminine side of god.
Her writings on natural history include Physica, a series of nine books detailing the scientific and medicinal properties of plants, animals, and stones.
An incredible text of its time, Physica is not only a seminal work in the development of Western herbal medicine, but also in natural history, leading the learned abbess to be seen as the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.
Mary Anning (1799 –1847)
Coming from a poor, working-class family, Mary Anning did not receive a formal education. Yet her fossil finds and adept scientific skills proved crucial to developing more accurate ways of thinking about the history of the earth.
Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, England, Mary helped her father, Richard, find and sell fossils to tourists who traveled to the Dorset coast.
A cabinet-maker by trade, Richard Anning had an enthusiastic interest in fossil finding and imparted this passion to his daughter.
Recovering Dorset’s Jurassic Past
Two million years earlier, the area had been part of the Ocean and home to giant reptiles and marine life. When these Jurassic monsters died, their bodies were fossilized into the silty seabed. These hardened into the rock that was later exposed as the cliffs of Lyme Regis.
Anning taught his young daughter how to uncover and clean the fossils of invertebrates they found embedded in the cliff faces, selling them then as supplemental support to their meager income.
Richard Anning passed away when Mary was just 11, but she, her brother Joseph and her mother, Mary Moore, continued to hunt for fossils along the Dorset coast.
Thanks to Mary’s keen eye and skill, they were successful in recovering a number of ammonoids and belmnoids which attracted the attention of several fossil collectors and scholars.
One in particular, Lieut. Col. Thomas Birch, purchased a number of their finds for a considerable sum. Later, during a financially desperate period in their lives, he auctioned off this collection and donated the proceeds to the Anning family.
A 12-Year Girl and a 95-Million-Year Old Monster
In 1811 her brother found the first known ichthyosaurusspecimen. Twelve-year-old Mary was the one who carefully excavated it, scrupulously searching for and recovering the rest of the 5.2-meter-long sea reptile’s skeleton, and for that reason is often credited with the discovery.
Twelve years later, the untrained scientist uncovered the first-ever fully intact plesiosaurus skeleton.
The find caught the attention of French zoologist and naturalist Georges Cuvier, who at the time was attempting to convince a skeptical scientific community that certain species in the world had become extinct. His idea was controversial for the day as it suggested not all of God’s creations were perfect; that some, such as the dinosaurs, had been doomed to fail.
Mary’s Dinosaurs: Crucial to the Theory of Extinction
Mary’s discovery became a crucial component of this argument. When Curvier was able to authenticate the specimen as an extinct plesiosaurus, the paleontological value of Mary’s fossil and the others that she and her family had recovered, became obvious.
From there, Mary went to unearth several other extraordinary fossils with painstaking care. In 1828, she recovered a pterosaur, the first discovered outside of Germany. A year later, her excavation of a squalorajaspecimen proved an evolutionary transition between sharks and rays.
Throughout this time, Mary taught herself geology, anatomy, paleontology, and scientific illustration. She became an expert in her field, and her aid and advice were sought regularly by the male and largely upper-class scholars of renowned paleontology and geological societies.
Scientists' Silence Around Mary Anning’s Contribution
She was rarely credited for her service, however. Certainly, she did not receive a byline on a vast many of the scientific articles it has since been established that she contributed to, including those penned by Cuvier himself and renowned English geologist, Adam Sedgwick.
In the latter years of her life, prior to her death from breast cancer, she did, however, start to receive annuities from the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London, which had been set up in recognition of her contributions to science.
Even still, her incredible talent and the work she delivered which effectively changed our understanding of life on earth, only started to be celebrated over the last few decades.