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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Raising Nature Girls: How 18th Century Botanist Catharina Helena Dörrien Created Girls' Science Education.

Pondering the Enlightenment, one's thoughts tend to turn Frenchwards.  The verbal barbs of Voltaire, the neuroses of Rousseau, the literary experimentation of Diderot, all culminating in the paroxysms of Revolution.  What's not to love?  By comparison, the German Enlightenment seems a bit staid and basic - the careful distinctions of Kant and the art criticism of Lessing are crucial moments in the history of thought, but they aren't precisely the stuff of Broadway musicals.  

Unfortunately, our tendency to undervalue the German Enlightenment has meant that some truly remarkable personages have slipped into near-oblivion who decidedly deserve better.  For while the French were charismatically working their way towards total national meltdown, over in Germany a broadly liberal approach to education was producing a generation of understated genius, including a woman polymath almost unbelievably rich in intellectual and artistic gifts.

Pedagogical innovator, renowned painter, rigorous naturalist, effortless translator, and gifted storyteller, she gained international fame in her time only to fade into complete obscurity for two centuries after her death.  She was Catharina Helena Dörrien (1717-1795) and, oh, is hers a tale to tell.

She was born in 1717 in Hildesheim to a family that boasted a prestigious lineage of learned pastors, a tradition carried on by her father.  A believer in the nascent Enlightenment, he felt that his daughters and sons both should have access to whatever resources they needed to learn about the world and its history, both natural and political.  Her mother showed her all the practical arts required to run a household while both her parents took turns in sharing their great love of plants and gardening.  While her brothers were receiving private instruction, she was welcome to join them and learn whatever took her fancy, including Latin, history, geography, and science. 

But of course it wouldn't be the 18th Century without a good helping of Everybody Dying.  Dörrien's mother died when she was 16, leaving her in charge of the running of the household, followed by her father when she was 20.  It fell to Dörrien to see her younger siblings through to adulthood.  One of those siblings, a younger brother, died when she was 29, one of the only biographical facts we have about the ten years following her father's death.  In that time, all of her siblings moved on to university, which would have left her alone, an unlikely state for a young woman in 18th century Germany, meaning that she most likely stayed with relatives or friends over the course of that long and diffuse decade.  

Her life was about to change, and profoundly, however, when she received an invitation from one of her friends to come and act as private teacher to her children in Dillenburg.  Here, she was once again thrown into a learning-saturated atmosphere led by the omnicurious figure of Anton Ulrich von Erath.  He loved plants and history and law and dragged everybody in the household along with him on his flights of intellectual fancy, including the new teacher.  Prodded on by his enthusiasms, she found just how much she was actually capable of, learning and mastering French, painting, and botanical taxonomy in quick succession. 

Erath noted her skills and employed them, using her drawings to illustrate his own publications, and tramping all over the Orange-Nassau region with her in search of new plant varieties to document and paint.  She made over 1400 water color illustrations of the region's plant life, and prepared German translations of French texts that were included in her first published works.  Those early books outlined startling pedagogical theories about the education of young women.

Up until that point, the greatest authorities on pedagogical method were males, whose opinions about the education of girls were predictably underwhelming.  Even Rousseau, whose Emile stood out as a clarion call to a more holistic, sympathetic approach to education, called for a girls' education that would make them pleasant life companions, and little else.  But in 1756, three years before Mary Wollstonecraft was even born, Dörrien decided to speak out as a woman challenging the way women were raised in her Versuch eines Beytrages zur Bildung eines edlen Hertzens in der ersten Jugend.  

In this work, and other pedagogical texts to follow, she honed in on what would make women useful and intellectually fulfilled, rather than what would make them pliant and pleasant companions.  She declared that, yes, a woman should know all the arts of household maintenance, so that she could do anything that life required in terms of her own self-preservation without idly relying upon others.  But practical household skills were not to be the extent of her kingdom - that knowledge must be supplemented by regular reading, directed with passion and sympathy from an early age, in history and, most importantly, in science.  She recommended several periodicals containing detailed science articles that should be included in the reading regimen of girls, and advocated also for the inculcating of a love of nature through first gardening, and then botany more generally.

She had precisely nothing nice to say about novels, and conceived of education as a grand exercise in producing people both useful (to themselves and others) and naturally curious.  People worthy of the Enlightenment's most lofty ideals of self-development and self-determination.  Her writings over the next decades varied from the intensely practical (treatises on knitting and embroidery) to the tactically whimsical (a series of children's stories and sayings written by herself or translated from French sources), gaining her fame as an original voice in the intellectual tapestry of the German Enlightenment.

All the while, however, she was collecting the material for what would be her masterpiece: the Verzeichniss und Beschreibung der saemtlichen in den Fuerstlich-Oranien-Nassauischen Landen wildwachsenden Gewaechse of 1777.  This plant catalogue collected her drawings and descriptions of plants gathered over thirty years within a hundred kilometers of her Dillenburg home.  She consciously eschewed the use of Latin and the employing of an academic style in order to make her book more accessible to botany enthusiasts and science teachers, a #scicomm revolution two centuries before the fact.  

The exquisite renditions of local plants, paired with the exhaustive detailing of their connections with the Linnean System, won wide praise.  Already a member of the Botanical Society of Florence and the Society for Friends of Natural Research in Berlin, she was in 1790 elected as an honorary member of the Regensburg Botanical Society.  Catalogues of famous scientists and women mentioned her work in pedagogy and her skill as a botanical observer and illustrator, and several of her works were translated into other languages and went through multiple editions.

Hailed as the German Elizabeth Blackwell (the Scottish botanical illustrator famous for her Curious Herbal of 1739), she carried on correspondences with some of her era's most well-known botanical minds, and yet after her death her place in the history of science steadily dwindled.  Biographical catalogues that used to carry paragraphs about her work in pedagogy, translation, illustration, and botany gave her life less and less space as the 19th century wore on, until by the turn of the twentieth century even German sources routinely omitted her name entirely, or rested content with a line or two featuring incorrect dates and vague generalities.  Meanwhile, the fourteen hundred botanical water colors she created dispersed to the winds, and today we have but a handful left.  

Fortunately, in the late twentieth century a few dedicated historians set themselves 

the task of uncovering the lost details of her life and work, and today her star is on the rise again in Germany at least if not yet the world.  Her Verzeichniss is being cited again as an invaluable resource for the reconstruction of our botanical past, and her example as an early and distinctive voice in the field of girl's pedagogy is recognized for the great leap it was.  We are finally advanced enough as a civilization to appreciate the fullness of Dörrien's accomplishments, and that bodes all manner of well for her, and us.


When I first wrote this piece in 2018, Catharina Dörrien didn’t even have a Wikipedia page, an absence which has thankfully since been rectified.  If you want to go further than that, there is a great biography of her by Regina Viereck, Zwar sind es weiblich Hände: Die Botanikerin und Pädagogin Catharina Helena Dörrien (2000), which features not only a 100 page appreciation of her life and work, but also a further hundred pages of Dörrien texts, featuring excerpts from her play, her sayings, and plates of her illustrations, which are indispensable. 


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