The Public and Private Face of Mary Treat

Mary TreatMary Treat was a Naturalist from New Jersey and a major contributor to botanical and entomological developments of the nineteenth century. Over the period 1871 – 1876 she exchanged fifteen letters with Darwin – more than any other woman Naturalist.


As Tina Gianquitto’s research into Treat’s published materials has shown, in the public context Treat crafted a very carefully and finely honed version of herself designed to sit comfortably with contemporary notions of what constituted acceptably feminine behaviour.


Home Studies in NatureIn publications such as Home Studies in Nature, Treat’s dangerously masculine interest in the rational world of Natural Science was tempered by the use of domestic discourse and imagery which identified her work as appropriately feminine and – in so doing – imbued it with an important sense of sexual hierarchy.


In speaking collectively (“Our Familiar Birds”, for example) Treat minimised the distance between her and her audience, in the process differentiating her brand of science from its detached, disinterested and characteristically masculine ‘expert’ equivalent.


Treat’s private correspodence raises some interesting questions about the extent to which Treat’s public self was the result of a deliberate strategy and the extent to which it was the inevitable product of the implicit workings of culture.


Asa GrayThe Treat we encounter in the corresopdence is undoubtedly more complex than her public equivalent. Indeed, one of the first things which leaps out on a reading of her first letter to Darwin is the fact that she wrote at the request of their mutual friend and colleague, Asa Gray. From the very off, then, we see Treat in quite different terms — she is part of the very network of experts from whom she actively differentiated herself in the public context.



Treat's first letter to DarwinIn her correspondence with Darwin, Treat communicates in a tone at once more confident, authoritative and direct. In her first letter, for example, she confidently declared that, “I will give you my observations on Drosera, which have escaped the attention of botanists”. Treat’s language too is more notably technical and ‘expert’ in the private context. While describing her ground breaking experiments on the sex of butterflies, for example, she explained to Darwin that, “These larvae fed on two quite dissimilar Umbelliferous plants—the Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum), and the Caraway of the gardens (Carum Carni)”.


While her private voice is undoubtedly more confident, confrontational and recognisably ‘scientific’ in character than its public equivalent, Treat’s dual identities were not entirely separate. While she was more likely to use technical language in her private correspondence, for example, her scientific jargon was consistently framed within very colourfully described, storytelling-style narratives which had strong echoes of her published work. In the process of describing her experiments to Darwin, for example, she often cast insects as courageous “little fellows” who were embroiled in a tragic and ultimately unsuccessful struggle for survival.


Treat’s correspondence also sometimes contains incidental details about her home which, again, helps align it with her familiar,  ‘non expert’ published works. She first undertook observations of Drosera, she told Darwin in one letter, when she found that “I had two or three species of these pretty plants growing for window ornaments“.


The extent to which Treat was able to escape the confines of Victorian gender ideology is thus open to debate. While she showed considerable agency in her ability carefully to craft a palatable public persona, the characteristically feminine elements of her private epistolary voice suggests she was perhaps to some extent restricted by the implicit workings of culture and the influence it had on the way she saw and described the world around her.


Nymphaea mexicana - one of Mary Treat's original discoveries

Perhaps most telling was Treat’s tendency in the public and private contexts alike to differentiate herself from ‘experts’ . Despite her ground breaking experiments, despite her large body of published work and her “considerable Botanical success” (as Darwin described it) , Treat never aligned herself with with ‘real’ Natural Scientists. The extent to which her subordinate sense of self was tied up with contemporary gender ideology is a question well worth considering.


Posted by Philippa Hardman

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