The 18th-Century French Woman Botanist Who Discovered Bougainvillea And Circumnavigated The Globe
“Not only a glass-ceiling-shattering explorer, but also a groundbreaking botanist, Jeanne Baret was the first woman to sail around the world as part of the first French circumnavigation, led by admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville from 1766 to 1769. Her journey was not smooth sailing, however. Because the French Navy did not allow women on their ships, Baret bound her breasts with linen bandages and boarded the Étoile dressed as a man” to be with her lover and colleague in botany, Philibert Commerson.
Bourgainville. Where have I heard that name? Ah yes, as in bougainvillea, according to Wikipedia, “a genus of thorny ornamental vines, bushes, or trees. The inflorescence consists of large colourful sepallike bracts which surround three simple waxy flowers. It is native to South America from Brazil west to Peru and south to southern Argentina,” and ah yes, bougainvillea, the cascading, carnival-colored plant familiar to the global south that I want. so. much. to. grow. in my garden in zone 7, but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture is only hardy in zones 9–11.
Baret’s biographer Glynis Ridley wrote in The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe, that it was Baret who discovered among many other new world plants, the first, now famous bouganvillea while in Brazil.
How to commend Baret’s efforts? Well, in 2012, named after her was a newly discovered species in the potato-tomato family.
Hang on, little tomato.
Her partner Commerson though? — “70 species carry the epithet commersonii” to mark the man.
I’m more interested in Baret and Commerson’s romance than in the family of the tomato or crying over spilled milk, the systemic hushing of the history of early women in STEM, because I’m a girl! I’m a blonde! (or was, when I was a kid!) so when Baret’s biographer Ridley asks, “what is the intersection between the world of the mid-eighteenth century Loire peasant and the gentleman scientist?” I’m all ears. What is the intersection? That’s a fascinating Venn diagram that has BOTANY in the middle.
Ridley writes, “Baret and Commerson came together at the meeting point between two views of the natural world: a folkloric, feminine tradition surrounding the medicinal properties of plants and the emerging field of taxonomy, which aimed to name and classify the natural world. Baret captured the attention of Commerson because she possessed botanic knowledge that lay well beyond the competence of his professors and mentors. She was an herb woman: one schooled in the largely oral tradition of the curative properties of plants. Herb women were for centuries the source of all raw materials to be prepared, mixed, and sold by male medical practitioners, and as botany crystallized as a science in the eighteenth century, a handful of male botanists did not think it beneath them to learn from these specialists. In this light, Baret was not Commerson’s pupil, but his teacher.”