A Stunning, Hand-Illustrated Book of Mushrooms Drawn by an Overlooked 19th Century Female Scientist

Mush­rooms have qui­et­ly become super­stars of the glob­al stage.

Sure, not every­one likes them on piz­za, but who cares?

In the 21st-cen­tu­ry, they are hailed as role mod­els and poten­tial plan­et savers (not to men­tion a wild­ly pop­u­lar design motif…)

Time-lapse cin­e­matog­ra­phy pio­neer Louie Schwartzberg’s crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed doc­u­men­tary, Fan­tas­tic Fun­gi, has made experts of us all.

Go back a cen­tu­ry, and such knowl­edge was much hard­er won, requir­ing time, patience, and prox­im­i­ty to field or for­est.

Wit­ness Fun­gi col­lect­ed in Shrop­shire and oth­er neigh­bor­hoods, a hand­bound, hand-illus­trat­ed 3‑volume col­lec­tion by one Miss M. F. Lewis, of Lud­low, Eng­land.

Miss Lewis, a tal­ent­ed artist with an obvi­ous pas­sion for mycol­o­gy spent over 40 years painstak­ing­ly doc­u­ment­ing the spec­i­mens she ran across in England’s West Mid­lands region.

Each draw­ing or water­col­or is iden­ti­fied in Miss Lewis’ hand by its sub­jec­t’s sci­en­tif­ic name. The loca­tion in which it was found is duti­ful­ly not­ed, as is the date.

The hun­dreds of species she cap­tured with pen and brush between 1860 and 1902 def­i­nite­ly con­sti­tute a life’s work, and also an unpub­lished one.

Cor­nell University’s Mann Library, where the only copy of this pre­cious record is housed, has man­aged to truf­fle up but a sin­gle ref­er­ence to Miss Lewis’ sci­en­tif­ic myco­log­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion.

Eng­lish botanist William Phillips, writ­ing in an 1880 issue of the Trans­ac­tions of the Shrop­shire Archae­o­log­i­cal and Nat­ur­al His­to­ry Soci­ety, not­ed that he been “per­mit­ted to look over [a work] of very much excel­lence exe­cut­ed by Miss M. F. Lewis, of Lud­low”, adding that “sev­er­al rare species [of fun­gi] are very artis­ti­cal­ly rep­re­sent­ed.“

The his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of Miss Lewis’ work extends beyond the fun­gal realm.

As Sage writes in Miss­ing Miss­es in Mycol­o­gy, a post on the Mann Library’s Tum­blr cel­e­brat­ing Miss Lewis and her con­tem­po­rary, Eng­lish mycol­o­gist and illus­tra­tor, Sarah Price, women’s work was often omit­ted from the offi­cial sci­en­tif­ic record:

While we’re now see­ing con­sid­er­able effort to rec­ti­fy the record, the dis­cov­ery of untold sto­ries to fill in the blanks can be tricky busi­ness. It’s not that the sto­ries nev­er hap­pened — the field of botany, for one, is replete with some pret­ty spec­tac­u­lar evi­dence of women’s (often unac­knowl­edged) engage­ment with sci­en­tif­ic inquiry, embod­ied in the detailed illus­tra­tions that cap­tured the insights of obser­va­tions from the nat­ur­al world. But the pub­lished his­tor­i­cal record is often woe­ful­ly scant when it comes to clos­er detail on the lives and careers of the women who have helped car­ry mod­ern sci­ence for­ward.

We may nev­er learn any­thing more about the par­tic­u­lars of Miss Lewis’ train­ing or per­son­al cir­cum­stances, but the care she took to pre­serve her own work turned out to be a great gift for future gen­er­a­tions.

Leaf through all three vol­umes of Miss M.F. Lewis’ Fun­gi col­lect­ed in Shrop­shire and oth­er neigh­bor­hoods on the Inter­net Archive:

Vol­ume I

Vol­ume II

Vol­ume III

Via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent 

John Cage Had a Sur­pris­ing Mush­room Obses­sion (Which Began with His Pover­ty in the Depres­sion)

How Mush­room Time-Laps­es Are Filmed: A Glimpse Into the Pio­neer­ing Time-Lapse Cin­e­matog­ra­phy Behind the Net­flix Doc­u­men­tary Fan­tas­tic Fun­gi

The Beau­ti­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed Atlas of Mush­rooms: Edi­ble, Sus­pect and Poi­so­nous (1827)

Alger­ian Cave Paint­ings Sug­gest Humans Did Mag­ic Mush­rooms 9,000 Years Ago

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • charles reesink says:

    Thanks so much! Extra­or­di­nary cat­a­logue of species prob­a­bly on their way of extinc­tion, frag­ile as they are.
    from win­nipeg, cana­da’
    where fresh mush­rooms are hard to find, at least here in he Prairies in the win­ter!

  • C-Goss says:

    So hap­py that Lewis’ work has been pre­served and shared!

    Recent­ly I ver­i­fied the name of artist Har­ri­et Sophia Phillips,
    who exhib­it­ed in the 1913 NYC Armory Show.
    After her death, the new own­er’s of her house in Hague NY took
    all of her paint­ings out of her barn and made a bon­fire of them.

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