Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Agnes Ibbetson, Exmouth botanist

Another spinoff from Memorials of Exmouth: Mrs Agnes Ibbetson (née Thomson, 1757-1823) was an outstanding self-taught plant physiologist and polymath: the most prolifically-published female researcher on botany of the early 19th century. It's a pity, then, that the most readily-found contemporary biographical description drifts from listing her achievements into portraying her as an insanely charitable opium-swiller surrounded by an entourage of dotards.

The Memorials of Exmouth clipping, which the compiler the Rev. William Everitt calls a "highly wrought eulogy ... in style it is suspiciously like that of the Rev. Jonas Dennis, B.C.L." is the unsigned obituary from an 1823 regional newspaper. The tone starts off positive, then goes rapidly downhill.into detail that seems over-the-top even for the more robust obituaries of the era.
Died on Sunday last, at Exmouth, in her 72nd year, Agnes, relict of the late Counsellor Ibbetson, and daughter of Andrew Thomson, of London, Esq., a Russian merchant. Some criterion of her masculine vigour of intellect is presented by the singular announcement of a botanical dissertation in Nicholson's Journal, by Alexander Ibbetson, Esq., her initials being thus misconstrued. She was truly an Alexander in science, subduing within her gigantic grasp Nature's empire, from celestial orbs down to embryo oak in the dissected acorn. Mathematics, optics, pneumatics, chemistry, mineralogy, astronomy, — above all, botanical anatomy and pathology deeply engaged her versatile talents. Polite literature, poetry, history, and Latin classics, diversified her intense studies. Serious will be the privation to the ^interests of science, should not her botanical discoveries, with illustrative delineations, completed for the Press, be solicited for publication by some public body. In minutest dissection in trees and plants her object has been practical utility. She suggested improvement of esculent vegetables, through detection and remedy of organic disease. Her astronomical attainments Sir William Herschell held in such high esteem as to have submitted to her revisal some of his own productions, previously to publication. Perhaps the most striking illustration of her ardent spirit of research was a successful search of the best editions of Latin and Greek Fathers in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, to discover the earliest omission of prohibition of prostration to images in the decalogue. Her philanthropy, particularly to objects of misery, oppression, or deformity, was scarcely bounded by her limited means. Stepping from her observatory to her temporary huckster's shop at Easton, she rescued the poor from petty peculation through the enormous price of provisions. At Belle Vue, near Exeter, her mansion was an exhibition of live caricatures. Superannuated females her attendants! A veteran son of Mars her running footman, winning two daily four-mile heats on one leg! Widow, orphan, houseless, helpless, received provision, pension, asylum, instruction, unsolicited, unremitted. With her was life an eminently chequered scene; a tissue of exquisite delight from her diurnal feast of reason, and of excruciating torture from nocturnal spasmodic affection. Almost incredible was her panacea in every varied indisposition. Repeatedly did she aver to the writer of this) brief memoir that in four days she once drank a quart of laudanum; after a walk a wine-glass was a common draught. Up to the last she took a teaspoon-full four times a day. Town-bred at the first-rate finishing school, she was in early life devoted to gaiety, frivolity, and dissipation, devoid of every idea of scientific or literary attainment. Till middle age she conceived not the slightest wish for severer pursuits. Eventually, in science, Agnes Ibbetson acquired ascendancy equal to that of Hannah More in belle lettres. In her respective department each soared paramount to the female world. Had but the former, like the latter, allotted a due share of attention to metaphysical and theological research, the result might have profited when "relations cease, and nature fails."
- Memorials of Exmouth, compiled by W. Everitt, Part I, Everitt, W, Pub. T Freeman, Baring Place, Exmouth, 1883 (Bodleian Alpha System No. 014715475), reprinted from the Royal Cornwall Gazette / Falmouth Packet & Plymouth Journal (Truro, England), Saturday, February 22, 1823.
It might be that the author was just steeped in sexist assumptions that anything distinctive done by a mature lady must be mad rather than excusable eccentricity. But if, as is very likely, it was by the Rev Jonas Dennis - was a contemporary of Mrs Ibbetson in Exeter and Exmouth - he had solid motives for attempting to poison posterity against her.

The ambivalent tone could come down in part to jealousy. Although he largely wrote theological and political polemic, he was also in the botany line; his 1835 The Landscape Gardener: Comprising the History and Principles of Tasteful Horticulture (Internet Archive landscapegarden00denngoog) is a competent treatise on public gardens and their management. But he certainly didn't get the kind of scientific acclaim received by Agnes Ibbetson for her meticulous microscope work. Furthermore - as the reference to the religious philanthropist Hannah More indicates - as a theologian at odds with "materialism" he must have hated Ibbetson's robustly non-supernatural approach to natural phenomena.

The style definitely resembles the rather spaced-out tone of some of his other works, such as the polemical The World Turned Upside Down (1832, Internet Archive workturnedupsid00denngoog). He comes across as a bit barking, as evidenced by his naming his firstborn son "Fontelautus" and in his 1826 account of the infant's supposed demonic possession, his death, and the subsequent posthumous manifestations. The 1826 Subversion of Materialism by Credible Attestation of Supernatural Occurrences is presented as a supposed blow to the materialists (see Wikisource for Sabine Baring-Gould's Devonshire Characters and Strange Events, which gives a summary that cuts to the chase).

For an obituary free of scurrilous material, see The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle: (inclusion in such a major publication is an indicator of Ibbetson's status):
Mrs. Agnes Ibbetson.
Feb.... At Exmouth, in her 66th year, Mrs. Agnes Ibbetson, relict of the late Councellor Ibbetson, and daughter of Andrew Thomson, Esq. of London.
     Possessed of a great and rich variety of knowledge, her stores of thought were enlivened and combined with an energy of character, which imparted the tone of genius and originality to her commonest actions and conversations. Devoted to literary pursuits with an ardour which can only be fully appreciated by the companions and associates of her friendship, in every object of Nature and Science, "truth genuinely established upon investigation," was her sole aim and desire.
     Endowed with a liberal and enlarged taste for literature, in the English, French, and Italian languages, she decidedly preferred the path of Natural Philosophy; especially Geology, Mineralogy, and Astronomy, in all of which she made great progress; but her favourite pursuit beyond all others, and wherein she has usefully and eminently evidenced the vigour of her intellect, was Botany, and especially the Physiology of Plants. Here her mind embraced the subject with a powerful impression of the wonders displayed in this most amazing feature of the divine economy, and under the sense of its rich and felicitous illustration of Nature's works, she has developed data connected with "the life of the seed," "its germination," and "progress to maturity," not only curious and highly interesting, but also important and useful. The application of the solar microscope to establish every link of her chain of facts and deductions, stamp her communications upon this subject with a peculiar value.
     The powerful tone of her mind, and her desire to appreciate the wonders of the vegetable tribes, have accomplished much in this path, and it is earnestly to be desired and hoped, that those papers may be given to the public to which she had put her last touches, aftertwenty years unabated investigation.
     In this her favourite pursuit, she will long be known to the world, as her observations are most honorably recorded, not only in Nicholson's and other scientific Journals, but their substance is also transferred and copied into the Edinburgh and other Natural Encyclopedias, and already have received testimonies of high respect and appreciation from foreigners of distinguished science.
     These attainments, although bright and flattering, are however only for tbe world at large. To her friends who were favoured with her society and esteem, ber memory will be distinguished by a native simplicity of manner and candour of thought, wholly divested from pretension or superiority; rendering her talents sources of pleasure, and her pursuits the medium of never ceasing amusement and instruction.
     Above all, the exalted and unbounded nature of her charity and zeal to soften distress and pain, and to relieve the destitute under all circumstances, stamped her life with a value beyond all that Science or Literature can bestow ; and combined to create a softness and impressive affection of habit and manner, which converted esteem very quickly into friendship, and rendered friendship, grounded on a knowledge of her real worth, permanent and indelible.
- page 474, The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle, May 1823
According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, Agnes Ibbetson contributed ...
thirty-three essays in Nicholson's Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts (1809–13) and twenty-two papers in the Philosophical Magazine (1814–22)
... as well as writing for  Letters and Papers of the Bath and West of England Society, Annals of Philosophy and Curtis's Botanical Magazine, works researched using equipment such as the "solar microscope" and self-invented tools for cutting specimens. Her subjects included "air-vessels, pollen, perspiration, sleep, winter-buds, grafting, impregnation, germination, and the Jussieuean method" (ref: Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 28). She wasn't necessarily right in her conclusions, such as her theory that a plant's seeds, pollen, and flower buds all formed in the root and forced their way out, but this was cutting-edge research in an area where such phenomena were still little-understood and not easily studied. Her work was hugely significant:
She would appear to have been not only the most productive women investigator in
the botanical sciences in any Western country in the early years of the 19th century,
but, at least measured by the Royal Society record, one of the most prolific women
of the period publishing in the science journals.
- page 29,  Mary R. S. Creese, Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science, 1800-1900, Scarecrow Press, 2000.
And all this was without any kind of support network, patronage or contacts.

Ibbetson's sketches from On the structure and classification of seeds
Nicholson's Philos. Journal, Vol. XXVII, Pl. V, p. 181
All her work was done in later life, starting in her fifties when she was living on a comfortable annuity at Bellevue, Exeter (a villa to the north of Exeter whose site is now occupied by a late-Victorian house, Bellenden) some years after the death of her husband James Ibbetson. She later moved to Exmouth to live with her sister, staying there until her death. Her magnum opus, the compilation of her findings into a ‘Botanical treatise’, remains unpublished, as do her notebooks. They're in the manuscript collection of the Natural History Museum:
The 1869 Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800-1900): ser. 1, 1800-1863 (pages 487-489) has a full listing of her published papers, many of which are findable by title in Google Books.

An eloquent Address to the Public prefaces her Treatise on Botany, on the situation of a woman - especially an older woman - working in a hostile field. It does, incidentally, dispel any notion fostered by the Rev. Dennis that Agnes Ibbetson was 'not all there'.
Aweful as it is, as it must be to a woman to present to the Public a work of science:The reflection that it is the result of near 16 years hard study can alone give me courage to offer it. The apparently daring plan of altering a science in all its parts from my own knowledge may revolt... But with all humility, I may declare I never thought or imagined such a scheme, my whole Idea consisted in dissecting plants, and by never ceasing attention, care, and labour follow all the yearly changes both without and within the plant, in order to discover the course of nature thus hidden in her secret paths: ....I present then the child of my old age to the public, and though the kind and favourable manner a mutilated part of this work was received has given me courage to complete it, yet I shall make use of no supplications, no excuses, no deprecatory speeches in favor of the work: The love I have for the science, instigated me to write it.... (Mss. IBB)
- out-of-copyright text reprinted in Ann B. Shteir, "Flora Feministica: Reflections on the Culture of Botany", Lumen: Selected Proceedings from the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies / Lumen: travaux choisis de la Société canadienne d'étude du dix-huitième siècle, vol. 12, 1993, p. 167-176. URI:
The "Flora Feministica" paper has good biographical sketches of Agnes Ibbetson and the slightly later botanist Elizabeth Kent, along with a general discussion of the social and scientific context of their work.

- Ray

No comments:

Post a Comment