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When I retired to my family's village of Juillac in Limousin, Southern France, I found traces of an amazing woman born here in 1794. Although her achievements lay forgotten for over a century, she was a rare woman in the male-dominated world of learned societies, and was recognized by the illustrious Richard Owen in 1858 as the inventor of the aquarium. In 1997 her name was given to a large crater on Venus1.
The daughter of the village shoemaker, she learnt to read and write and then, at the age of 18, walked to Paris to find employment. She became a talented dressmaker's assistant, and through her fame as the creator of a wedding gown for a Bourbon princess, she met and married a rich and noble English merchant, James Power, who was living in Messina in Sicily. They lived in Sicily from 1818 until 1843. Jeanne taught herself natural history, and travelled throughout Sicily recording, describing and collecting the natural riches of the island - minerals, fossils, butterflies and shells. Her Guida per la Sicilia was recently republished by the Historical Society of Messina.
Jeanne, however, was not content with purely descriptive studies of dead specimens; she was excited by life and its mysteries. Living on the edge of the Mediterranean, she had everything at her disposal to undertake a study of aquatic life. In order to make good observations, she designed three different types of aquaria - one for use in a study, others anchored to the sea bed.
Between 1832 and 1843, Jeanne carried out experimental observations on the paper nautilus, Argonauta argo, tackling mysteries which had lain unresolved since the writings of Aristotle and Pliny the Elder. At the time there was dispute over whether the 'shell' was produced by the paper nautilus or was 'acquired', like that of a hermit crab, and the creature was still said to use the membranes of the two unsuckered arms as sails, assisting motion by rowing with the six remaining arms. She showed that the young, lodged in the papery 'shell' of the mother develop their 'shells' as larvae, and that broken 'shells' would be rapidly repaired by a substance secreted from the membranes ('sails') of the un-suckered tentacles. She also reasoned that a minute organism resembling the small suckered arm of an octopus, found with the egg mass in the shell, was probably the male Argonauta: an hypothesis which was later confirmed.
Jeanne also laid the foundations of aquaculture in Sicily. She suggested that the rivers might be re-populated with fish by feeding young caged fish until they were a suitable size for re-introduction to other, depopulated rivers.
The couple left Sicily in 1843, living after that in London and Paris, where James was the French agent for the underwater telegraph. Unfortunately most of Jeanne's collection, and her records and exquisite drawings were lost in a shipwreck. She published several more works, but undertook no further researches. In 1871, Jeanne fled the terrible siege of Paris, returning to the village of her birth, where she died shortly afterwards.
A selection of my archives of Jeanne have been deposited in the Zoology Library of the Natural History Museum in London, but I would be most pleased to hear from anyone with any information about Jeanne or the Power and Villepreux families.
Claude Arnal, Juillac.
(1)See the list of women in science of the last 4000 years at: http://www.astr.ua.edu/4000WS