Women are becoming more visible in the world of aquatics, and the hobby has a long history of women who were the first to do new things. So, asks Ingrid Allan, why don’t we hear more about them?
We fish keepers have never had it so easy. It might not feel like it when you’re carrying buckets of water or trying to figure out why one of your fish died. We should be thankful to the people who made it possible for us to have easy access to thousands of species and a lot of information. People have talked a lot about Amanos and Axelrodis, but since March is Women’s History Month, I wanted to highlight some of the amazing things that female ichthyologists, zoologists, and biologists have done for the hobby.
Before 1900: A new science in the time of women’s right to vote During Queen Victoria’s reign, interest in the natural sciences grew to levels that had never been seen before. This was true for both the landed gentry and the growing middle class. Charles Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species,” which came out in 1859, shattered a lot of old ideas about the natural world and ushered in a new era of more scientific evolutionary biology. When you add in new ways to travel, taxidermy, and keep animals alive, every man with money wanted to find a new species.
Not all women thought this was good news. They still couldn’t vote or own property, and outside of the control of their husbands and fathers, they didn’t have much freedom. People who wanted an education, let alone one in the sciences, were few and far between. Even many of the wealthiest Victorians didn’t think it was important for girls to go to school, which was bad news for most young women at the time, like the English writer, explorer, and self-taught zoologist Mary Kingsley (1862–1900). Kingsley was determined, though, and she made her own way in science with the help of her father’s huge library and her brother Charley’s academic connections. Even though she went on to become a doctor, she had to spend a lot of her young life taking care of her sick parents. When both of them died in 1892, she was finally free to travel, thanks to a large inheritance.
At the time, it was rare for a European woman to travel around Africa without a husband or a group of missionaries, but Mary Kingsley did it alone and brought back over 65 species of fish. Most of these had never been described in an official way, and seven of them were completely new to science. Three species, including the Tailspot climbingperch (Ctenopoma kingsleyae), were named after her. A lot of the early interest in mormyrids and African spiny eels can be traced back to Kingsley, who collected them on her travels and wrote about them. If she hadn’t gotten typhoid at the young age of 37 while volunteering as a nurse for POWs during the second Boer war, she would have found many more.