« Return to this article

Know the West

Madame Merian and her passion for metamorphosis


In Chrysalis, Montana writer Kim Todd travels to Amsterdam and Surinam and brings back the story of a pioneering field scientist, one whose intellectual descendants still wander the modern West. Todd traces the 17th-century life of Maria Sibylla Merian, the daughter of a German printer, who defied convention to become one of the most diligent and adventurous naturalists of her time.

In Merian’s day, most people thought insects — and a host of other creatures — were the product of spontaneous generation. “Insects were born from the mud,” writes Todd. “From dew. From books. Old snow gave birth to flies. Old wool to moths. Cheese to worms. Raindrops yielded frogs, and a woman’s hair could turn to snakes if left in the sun.” Throughout a lifetime of untiring observation — “There are few other examples of such a single-minded scientific obsession,” Todd notes — Merian, who had little formal education, helped confound these fantastical theories, using her artistic talents to document the metamorphosis of insects in their natural habitats.

Her full-immersion research methods, which took her into the sweaty rainforests of Surinam at the age of 52, were unusual at a time when most naturalists studied insects in collections, or through the lenses of newfangled microscopes. Her elaborate South American paintings were reproduced in a book, which not only created a stir among naturalists of her time but also helped lay the foundation for modern ecology. Today, scientists from Montana to Arizona and beyond use the field techniques Merian pioneered, hoping to understand the complex interplay between insects and their environment.

On the strength of Merian’s artwork, her scant surviving writings, and Todd’s own prodigious historical research, Chrysalis recreates the naturalist’s time and travels, gracefully describing the society she lived in and rebelled against. Todd pieces together Merian’s personal and professional struggles, revealing her faults and weaknesses as well as her heroic leaps. In the years after her death, Merian’s once-respected work fell into obscurity, and her books and paintings scattered to various collections. Todd uncovers her forgotten legacy, which flutters through the wild spaces of the West on a butterfly’s wing.

Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis Kim Todd

328 pages,

hardcover: $27.

Harcourt, 2007.