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Chrysalis, Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

An artist turned naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian was born just thirteen years after Galileo was prosecuted for claiming the earth orbited the sun. But in 1699, more than a century before Darwin or Humboldt, she sailed from Amsterdam to South America on an expedition to study insect metamorphosis. It was an unheard of journey for a naturalist at that time, much less a woman, and she undertook it at the age of fifty-two, with only her daughter for company.

For two years she stalked the tropical wilderness looking for the caterpillars that were her passion and sketching her discoveries on scraps of parchment. Her careful observations of iridescent blue morpho butterflies and giant flying cockroaches made her one of the first to describe metamorphosis--at a time when theories of spontaneous generation (old snow gave birth to flies; raindrops yielded frogs) still held sway--and laid the ground work for modern-day biological science, particularly ecology. But her accomplishments were mostly dismissed and then forgotten in the nineteenth century when scientists feared they would be discredited if they built on the work on "amateurs."

Now Merian has been restored to her rightful place. Taking us from golden age Amsterdam to the sweltering rain forests of Surinam to the modern laboratories where Merian's insights fuel a new branch of biology, Chrysalis brings to life an amazing seventeenth century woman whose boldness and vision would still be exceptional today.


"A breathtaking example of scholarship and storytelling, enriched by ample illustrations of Merian’s work."
--Kirkus (starred review)

"Todd (Tinkering with Eden, 2001) emulates Merian’s richly contextual approach in her vivid descriptions of every facet of her subject’s vibrant world as she insightfully chronicles Merian’s extraordinary life as the daughter of a prominent Frankfurt publisher, an artist’s wife in Nuremberg, a member of an isolated religious community, a renowned scientist and artist in progressive Amsterdam, and the practitioner of pioneering fieldwork in the rain forest of Surinam. In spite of systematic misogyny, Merian made invaluable discoveries in sync with Leeuwenhoek’s development of the microscope and Linnaeus’ grand classification scheme, yet was soon forgotten. Todd’s discerning analysis and deep appreciation resurrect Merian and reclaim her still vital achievements, ensuring that Merian will stand as the resourceful and courageous visionary she truly was."
--Booklist (starred review)

"Todd’s writing itself is lush, almost poetic, whether she is describing the science of metamorphosis or Merian’s own personal metamorphoses throughout her life."
--Library Journal (starred review)

"In this spellbinding biography, Todd interweaves the life of Maria Sibylla Merian, a German artist and naturalist who became famous in the seventeenth century for her engravings of caterpillars, with the intellectual and scientific history of metamorphosis."
--The New Yorker

"If Maria Sibylla Merian were alive today, she'd be on Oprah. A teen bride, she later left her husband and joined an obscure cult, supported herself by selling her paintings, and studied nature in the South American jungle at the age of 52. The kicker? She did all this in the 17th century."

"Todd’s book is a portrait of the metamorphosis of an age, a society, and a woman whose passion to see the world through the metaphor of moths and butterflies would not abate. As Todd tells us of Merian’s Suriname illustrations, ‘They make an elegant case for the way a caterpillar doesn’t end at its last segment, but stretches to include the flower it eats, the season it molts, the leaves it webs into its cocoon, the parasitoids that lay eggs there, the moth it becomes. To see clearly, a viewer needed to see it all.’ The illustrations reproduced in this fine biography affirm Merian’s vision; the range of Todd’s research and the eloquence of her writing give that vision voice."