… in Barber’s life and work will raise when films and TV programs captivate the general public.



Apparently a film crew is working on a bio pic on Marianne North and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Novel The Signature of All Things (2013) is translated into a mini-series by MASTERPIECE.

I’ve already shared my thoughts on the novel in German, but will summarise my concerns in English here. Gilbert’s books are best-selling and circulating a conservative image of women be they contemporary or not.

In The Signature of All Things, Gilbert reproduces the patriarchal myth used in the large majority of female botanists biographies that Alma Whittaker, born in 1800, inherits her father’s love of botany. Alma also inherits her father’s ungainly looks and therefore has to make sure she is educated to make up for her ugliness. Gilbert’s book is based on research on female botanists at the time such as Mary Treat and Marianne North, but she only scratches at the surface. Unlike historians, she does not gain or provide her readers with an understanding of women’s scope of action and subjectivity at the time. Alma is constrained to  the domestic sphere by her father and falls in love with every man who passes by at her house in Philadelphia. Eager to gain physical union with a man, she marries a man who prefers spiritual communion and is consequently exiled to Tahiti to oversee a vanilla plantation where he dies.

Towards the end, Gilbert stresses that Alma formulated the theory of competitive alteration. According to her theory, ‘the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died… . This fact was the very mechanism of nature – the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation – and it was the explanation for the entire world.’ (p. 434) Alma aimes to prove her theory with mosses and writes a manuscript that she does not publish, as she does not understand how the selfless acts of human beings (altruism) fit into her theory – a topic that occupied female intellectuals such as George Eliot at the time. When Charles Darwin publishes his On the Origin of Species (1859) she knows she has been right all along and sees that ‘knowledge is the most precious of all commodities’ (p. 497)

As such the novel is on adaptation – mosses adaptation as well as Alma’s. Alma defines herself through others, adapts to her father’s idiosyncrasies and does what others ask her to. Afraid not to have come up with a perfect theory, she does not publish her insights and leaves Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace the floor. Gilbert thus misses a chance to show that already in the 19th century there were women who thought and acted differently to the contemporary and current constrained gendered sphere. In addition, Gilbert creates the wrong impression that botany was an upper-class leisure activity for ladies, which certainly was the case, but plants also attracted middle- and lower-class people who contributed to the discipline, as Anne Secord showed in 1994.

Despite these objections, Gilbert certainly raises awareness for female scientists at the time such as Mary Treat, Marianne North and Mary Barber, who were more independent than Gilbert’s protagonist.

Marianne North

Whenever I mention working on a British-born female naturalist, people think of Marianne North (1830-1890) who travelled the world and painted its flora and part of its fauna in oil. She painted flowers in their habitat on all the continents and wrote travel journals that her sister posthumously edited and published under Recollections of a Happy Life: Being the autobiography of Marianne North. North exhibited her paintings in a London gallery in 1879 and had the idea of showing them at Kew. She wrote to Joseph Dalton Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, asking whether he would agree to display her life’s work if she donated a gallery. The gallery was soon built in a mix of classical and colonial styles. North spent a year arranging her paintings inside the building and the Marianne North Gallery opened to the public in 1882. After the gallery was opened, North had to go to Africa as it was the only continent missing. She arrived at the Cape in late 1882, as her Recollections shows. She met Roland Trimen in Cape Town who showed her around in the South African Museum and mentioned his friend Mary Elizabeth Barber. North recorded that ever since arriving at the Cape people mentioned Barber ‘the great authority on all sots of natural history’ (p. 247). She thus hoped to make her acquaintance. By the end of the year, she arrived in Grahamstown where she stayed at local surgeon William Guybon Atherstone’s. He was Barber’s husband’s cousin and informed her of North’s arrival. One day, Barber visited North in the railway hotel where she was staying. Mary brought some of her watercolours to show North and two evil smelling stapelias for her to paint. They attracted so many flies that she had to dispose of them (p. 247-248).


Art Store, History Museum, Albany Museum complex, Grahamstown, Barber’s painting 31 Diadema missipus

North seems to have copied the butterflies and caterpillars as a comparison of painting 31 to North’s Buphane toxicara and other Flowers of Grahamstown (painting 395) shows:


North did of course not mention how she painted, but belittled Barber’s technique as old-fashioned, saying her paintings were ‘stippled on white paper with a line of neutral tint round the edges to raise them (done much in the way old Anne North did her flowers in the year I was born)’ (p. 247).

North’s painting is now part of the 833 paintings depicting more than 900 plant species at the Marianne North Gallery. It was restored and conserved as part of a two-year conservation project (2008-2010). It is seen by thousands of people at the gallery every year and by even more online, while Barber’s is stored at the Art Store of the History Museum of the Albany Musem complex in Grahamstown, South Africa, where I as a researcher could see it upon request. Her economic capital made North enter collective memory and history, while Barber has almost fallen into oblivion. High time I change this with this blog entry and for the time being a low-quality photograph I took in Grahamstown in 2012.



Mary Elizabeth Barber has been mentioned in articles and books. Here is a list of references (1904-2015) that is constantly updated. Please share references, if you can:

Encyclopaedia entries

Gutsche. Dr T. 1971. “Mary Elizabeth Barber” in Dictionary of South African Biography Vol II, 26-7.

‘Barber, Mrs. F. W. (née Mary Elizabeth Bowker) (1818-1899) in Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. 1981. Botanical Exploration of Southern Africa. An illustrated history of early botanical literature on the Cape flora. Biographical accounts of the leading plant collectors and their activities in southern Africa from the days of the East India Company until modern times. A.A. Balkema, Cape Town, pp. 87-88.

BARBER, Mary Elizabeth,in: Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (ed.): Women Marching into the 21st Century: Within’ Abafazi, Within’ Imbokodo, 9 August 2000, researched by Group Democracy and Governance. Human Sciences Research Council (Shereno Printers 2000) p. 225.

Cohen, Alan. “Barber, Mary Elizabeth (1818-1899″ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2010

Mary R. S. Creese with Thomas M. Creese, Ladies in the Laboratory III: South African, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian Women in Science, Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, A Survey of Their Contributions(Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2010), pp. 9-12.

Harvey, Joyce and Marilyn Ogilvie, eds. “Barber, Mary Elizabeth (Bowker)” in The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century. (London: Taylor & Francis 2000), Volume 1, p. 78.

Strohmeyer, Renate,  Lexikon der Naturwissenschaftlerinnen und naturkundigen Frauen Europas. Verlag Harri Deutsch, p. 34.

Short online introductions
South African History
Biodiversity Explorer
Darwin Correspondence Project
English Wikipedia entry
German Wikipedia entry

Articles on her

Schonland, S. (1904). “Biography of the Late Mrs. F. W. Barber.” Records of the Albany Museum 1(2): 95-108.

Alan Cohen, 1999, ‘Mary Elizabeth Barber, The Bowkers and South African Prehistory’ in South African Archaeological Bulletin, Vol. 54, No. 170, pp. 120-127

Alan Cohen, Mary Elizabeth Barber, some early South African geologists and the discoveries of gold, South African Journal of Economic History 15:1 (2000), 1-19.

Alan Cohen, ‘Mary Elizabeth Barber: South Africa’s first lady natural historian’, Archives of Natural History 27:2 (2000), 157-208.

Alan Cohen, ‘Roland Trimen and the Merope Harem’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 56:2 (2002), 205-18.

F. Way-Jones, R. Lubke, F. Gess, Mary Elizabeth Barber (1820[!]-1899), Annals of the Grahamstown Historical Society, 40: 14-21.

Articles with Passages on Barber

Selected articles from the Cape Monthly Magazine (new series 1870-76). Van Riebeeck Society II(9): 159.

William Beinart, ‘Men, Science, Travel and Nature in the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Cape’, Journal of Southern African Studies 24:4 (1998), 792-99.

Joy Harvey, Darwin’s ‘Angels’: the Women Correspondents of Charles Darwin, Intellectual History Review 19:2 (2009), pp. 207-208.

Robert Shanafelt, How Charles Darwin Got Emotional Expression out of South Africa (And the People Who Helped Him), Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 815-842

Books with chapters on Barber

Hilton-Barber, David (2014). The Saint, the Surgeon and the Unsung Botanist: A tribute to my remarkable ancestors (Footprints Press)

Mitford-Barberton, I. (1970). Chapter 7, Mary Elizabeth Barber, Comdt. Holden Bowker. An 1820 Settler book including unpublished records of the Frontier Wars. (Cape Town, Pretoria, Human & Rousseau), pp. 223-256.

Mitford-Barberton, I. (1934), The Barbers of the Peak: A History of the Barber, Atherstone, and Bowker Families (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Mitford-Barberton, I. and R. Mitford-Barberton (1952). The Bowkers of Tharfield (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Mitford-Barberton, I. and White, V. (1968), Some Frontier Families. Biographical Sketches of 100 Eastern Province Families before 1840. Cape Town/Pretoria: Human & Rousseau.

Articles and Books that mention her

Beinart, W. (2003), The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the Environment, 1770-1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 117.

Dubow, S. (2006), A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility, and White South Africa (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 95, 106, 108.

Dubow, S. (2004), Earth History, Natural History, and Prehistory at the Cape, 1860-1875, Comparative Studies in Society and History 46:1, pp. 123, 126.

Eve, J. (2003), A Literary Guide to the Eastern Cape. Cape Town: Double Storey Books, p. 185-187.

T. Gianquitto, Botanical Smuts and Hermaphrodites: Lydia Becker, Darwin’s Botany, and Education Reform, Isis 104:2 (2013), p. 263.

Harries, P. (2007), Butterflies & Barbarians: Swiss Missionaries & Systems of Knowledge in South-East Africa (Oxford etc.: James Currey etc.), p. 142.

Johnson, S.D. (2009), Darwin’s legacy in South African evolutionary biology, South African Journal of Science, 105: 11-12, p. 404.

Lester, A. (2001), Imperial Networks: Creating identities in nineteenth-century South Africa and Britain (London, New York: Routledge), pp. 74-75.

Rall, M. (2002), Petticoat Pioneers: The History of the Pioneer Women who Lived on the Diamond Fields in the Early Years. Kimberley: Kimberley Africana Library, p. 15.

Weedman, K. (2001), Who’s “That Girl”: British, South African, and American Women as Africanist Archaeologists in Colonial Africa (1860s-1960s, The African Archaeological Review, 18:1, p. 5

Short introduction

Who was Mary Elizabeth Barber? You may ask yourself. This is a very legitimate question, as  she is not well known. She was a British-born, South Africa-based naturalist who as a two-year-old arrived near Grahamstown, on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony with the 1820 settlers. Reading Irish botanist William Henry Harvey‘s Genera of South African Plants (1838, second edition 1868), she became interested in plants. She corresponded with Harvey and provided him with more than thousand specimens at the Trinity College Dublin Herbarium. This made the curator and later professor acknowledge her in his Flora Capensis (3 vols co-authored with German botanist Otto Wilhelm Sonder, 1859-1865) and his accompanying Thesaurus Capensis (1859-1863). When Harvey’s health deteriorated, she established contact with Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), director at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, London, who named Brachystelma barberae after her in 1867, corresponded with her and supported the publication of some of her articles and forwarded some of her information to Charles Darwin. At the same time, she described and depicted birds for Edgar Leopold Layard, curator of the South African Museum in Cape Town who was working on The Birds of South Africa (1867, new edition 1875-84). She was the only woman he quoted, the first British South African ornithologist and certainly one of only few women at the time working on birds to such an extend. At the same time, Barber was in close contact with entomologist Roland Trimen, curator of the South African Museum. He made her a member of the South African Philosophical Society in 1878 and published her articles in the society’s transactions. Her correspondence became part of Trimen’s and her brother James Henry Bowker’s South-African Butterflies (1887-1889). She was also contributing to archaeology and geology. Her ca. 100 watercolours, sketches and illustrations testify her artistic talent and observational skills and her ca. 50 published poems in The Erythrina Tree and Other Verses (1898, example) show her interest in literature and her versatility. She grew up near Port Alfred, later lived on various farms in the Eastern Cape with her husband, their two sons and daughter. They spent the 1870s in Kimberley witnessing the diamond rush. She returned to the area of Grahamstown, helped her sons ostrich farming and accompanied them to Witwatersrand for the gold rush in 1886. After more than a decade separated from her husband, who was in England, the family joined him and travelled in England and on the Continent, before returning in 1891. Her husband Frederick William Barber died shortly afterwards in Grahamstown (1892). She alternately lived at her sons’ and at her brother James Henry’s in Malvern near Durban and died at her daughter’s in Pietermaritzburg on 4 September 1899. Just to give you a very brief introduction.


Welcome to the blog to!

I’m a Swiss PhD student at the Department of History, University of Basel, working on Mary Elizabeth Barber in a case study of science in the Cape Colony. For her bicentenary on 5 January 2018 I will open In the meantime, I share my research with you. I look forward to reading your comments and sharing ideas with you.