Learning by Degrees, Without Degrees

Margaret was always careful not to claim she was a scientist. She worked closely with many professionals, especially those engaged in mycological studies. They often turned to her for help in both finding fungal species and identifying obscure mushrooms. She was a recognized expert….and yet….not a scientist. She had no college degree or position in any institution.

Many “amateurs,” especially women, were in the same position: very knowledgeable and respected, sometimes recognized but more often working behind the scenes, nameless. They helped their husbands* or brothers or worked diligently holding together various botanical organizations, editing journals, keeping the membership lists, the work that must be done that supported the forward march of science.

Start small and build piece by piece. So with puzzles (like this wonderful example of botanical specimens) try to learn the basics.

Earlier, scientific work was not as rigidly organized as it became and there were fewer barriers between serious students of the various branches of what became science and those who, say, loved flowers or ferns or gathering shells on the beaches. Many early Victorians had amazing collections and knew the names of all their prizes, and some went on to further study; the line between collectors and “real” botanizers was quite permeable. Botany was a common and popular subject in schools or could be learned independently through the many books and journals meant for anyone to peruse. There were clubs with open memberships and societies and public talks and exhibitions. Margaret was raised in just such a fluid and accessible setting and worked her whole life to keep those doors open for others.

It’s all in the details

Margaret learned her botany in school and in the family garden and on walks in the countryside. And then she took it further, bought a microscope, and really studied her subject and shared her findings widely with her many friends and neighbors who were also keen to explore the natural world. Everyone studied at least some botany in school and so had a grounding in the subject and a foundation for more learning. That seems to be no longer the case.

the shapes of the leaves, the branching pattern, the exact colors of the flowers

I’ve been reading more about botany now, inspired by Margaret, but it’s slow going. I flounder; I don’t have a system for remembering all the new vocabulary and definitions. I even bought a textbook but it is very dry reading! And it feels remote from actual plants somehow. Maybe I’m not going about this the right way; maybe I should get more acquainted with the plants in my own garden first: really look at them and learn the shapes of their leaves, the times they flower, the seeds they produce, everything there is to see. And then apply the terminology the textbook insists upon.

As so often, I ask myself, “What would Margaret do?” She’s make sure it was fun, an adventure, that I do know!

This was fun! Every piece got me closer to seeing the big picture.

A fascinating woman of this type was Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton (1857-1934). As a young woman, she was already an accomplished botanist and bryologist (the study of mosses) as a charter member of the illustrious Torrey Botanical Club. She wrote hundreds of scientific papers, was curator of the moss collection and editor of the club journal. After she married fellow club member, Nathaniel Britton, she worked tirelessly with her husband to found and staff the New York Botanical Garden where she again created a renowned collection of mosses. They were energetic collectors of plants who traveled extensively to find new specimens; wherever he went, so did she. Later, she became concerned with the plight of wild flowers and founded the Wild Flower Preservation Society in 1902 to educate the public and create reserves for the vanishing beauties. And yet she is little known today. A brief biography can be found here:


6 thoughts on “Learning by Degrees, Without Degrees

  1. Ahoy, matey, interesting as per usual. I loves me the comparison to putting together a puzzle. And you has got some mad puzzle-doin’ skills. If’n you be interested, I gots me a 1000 piece puzzle of the birds that be just like the one you put together for this blog. no tellin’ where that could take you.


  2. It took me a l-o-n-g time to make that puzzle! At first I didn’t think I could do it…but with a little sorting and strategizing and lots of Covid time it did come together. It was kind of addictive…just one more piece, just another.
    A bird puzzle sounds fun. There will be rainy days to come!


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