A 19th Century Shipwreck Might Be Why This Famous Female Naturalist Faded to Obscurity

Jeanne Villepreux-Power invented the aquarium and studied cephalopods, but today few recognize her name

Paper nautilus
Jeanne Villepreux-Power described how the Paper Nautilus grew its own shell D. Parer & E. Parer-Cook/Minden Pictures/Corbis

Most science history buffs have heard of the English biologist and paleontologist Richard Owen, who gave dinosaurs their name and challenged Charles Darwin’s proposed mechanism of evolution. But few have heard of the ground-breaking marine biologist who was his contemporary. Jeanne Villepreux-Power invented the aquarium, an achievement that led Owen to call her "the mother of aquariophily." But today, few recognize her name. Likely, this historical oversight is due in part to a shipwreck in 1843 that carried most of Villepreux-Power’s books and writings to the bottom of the ocean.

For Science News, Sarah Zielinski relates Villepreux-Power’s story, starting with it’s fairy-tale like beginnings. 

The daughter of a shoemaker, Villepreux was born in 1794. She gained renown as a seamstress at age 17 or 18 and embroidered the wedding dress of an Italian princess. The feat helped her catch the eye of a wealthy merchant, James Power. They married and moved to Messina, Sicily. Zielinski writes:

There, “Jeanne became a lady of leisure,” Helen Scales notes in her recent book Spirals in Time. “She no longer sewed or embroidered dresses for a living, and she didn’t continue with such genteel pursuits to keep herself busy… Instead, she rolled up her sleeves and became a scientist.”

Over the next two decades, Villepreux-Power studied the island’s wildlife, corresponding with top naturalists of the time and eventually writing two guides to Sicily. “Way ahead of her time,” Scales writes, “she came up with the idea of restocking overfished rivers with fish and crayfish.” And she documented tool use inOctopus vulgaris, describing how the animal could use stones to wedge open Pinna nobilis shells.

Villepreux-Power also pioneered the use of the aquarium. The Encyclopedia Britannica credits her with inventing the "first recognizable glass aquarium in 1832," although British naturalist Philip Gosse is more widely known because he brought the aquarium to the public consciousness. For The Malacological Society of London’s Bulletin, Juillac Claude Arnal writes:

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.

The aquaria were necessary for Villepreux-Power’s studies of the paper nautilus, Argonauta argo. She needed a container that would let her watch young larval nautili grow into adults and see if they also developed their own shells. They did. She also found a small creature that looked like an octopus’s suckered arm embedded in the egg sac of the female. Villepreux-Power posited that this was probably the male Argonauta and was later proved right.

Any who questioned her findings were struck down by Richard Owen, who "championed" her work for the Zoological Society of London, reports Louisa Allcock of the University of Ireland Galway and her colleagues in Journal of Natural History. Villepreux-Power became a member of more than a dozen scientific societies around Europe.

Then, a rare disaster struck. All of her papers and writings were lost at sea when the ship moving them from Sicily to England sunk in 1843. Not all of her discoveries were forgotten, thanks to previous correspondence with other researchers, but after that loss she didn’t publish again. She died in 1871.

In 1997, Villepreux-Power’s name was given to a large crater on Venus. The woman who studied alien-like creatures beneath the sea on this world now has a namesake beneath the clouds of another world. 

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