|Jeanne Villepreux-Power, linocut 11" x 14" by Ele Willoughby, 2019|
I have another scientific Cinderella story for you. A daughter of a poor family makes an epic walk to the big city, makes a gown for a princess, finds her own merchant prince and reinvents herself as scientist and inventor, solves marine biological mysteries and is a trailblazer for women in science!
Jeanne (sometimes Jeannette) Villepreux was born in 1794 in Juillac, the eldest daughter of a humble shoemaker and a seamstress who died when she was young. As a child, her education consisted merely of learning to read and write. When she reached 18, she walked the 400 km to Paris to try to make her fortune as a dressmaker. She found a job as an apprentice to a society dressmaker, thanks to her artistry and skill as an embroiderer. Within four years she had made a name for herself when she made the wedding gown of Sicilian Princess Caroline for her marriage to Charles-Ferdinand de Bourbon, future Duc de Berry and nephew of the King Louis XVIII. Through this newfound fame, she met a wealthy Irish merchant James Power, who was based in Italy. She taught herself English and Italian before the couple married and moved to Sicily in 1818. In her new home, she dedicated herself to her studies, natural history and inventorying the island’s ecosystem, both on and offshore. Messina, where the couple lived, was a natural draw to visiting scientists. As a avid reader with an excellent memory, she educated herself rapidly and became well-connected with respected scientists. She travelled the island gathering minerals, fossils, butterflies and shells.
She had a particular interest in molluscs and their fossils, as well as one of their predators, the mysterious greater Argonaut (Argonauta argo) called the paper nautilus, which she studied from 1832 to 1843. The sheltered bay at Messina made it easy for her to see life under the calm waters. Despite its name, the paper nautilus is more closely related to octopuses than the nautilus. These rarely seen animals had long be the subject of myths; people commonly believed they stole their shells and even, thanks to Aristotle's wild conjectures, that they employed them as boats with the large dorsal arms as sails, to sail on the surface of the ocean. In 1932, she invented the aquarium to allow her to better study these marine animals, working with local fishermen who would bring her buckets of argonauts in seawater. She had a glass one for study, a submersible one, which fit in a cage, and a cage, known as "cages à la Power" which could be anchored at sea to study animals in their own environment since argonauts had not fared well in captivity. She methodically developed techniques to care for and feed marine creatures and change the water in the aquaria. She tracked how they fed, how they grew, moved and developed. The source of the shells remained mysterious, even after multiple experiments. Eventually she had the idea to damage a shell, and observe the animal within the cage when it was supplied with broken pieces of shells. She patiently watched for hours on end and was rewarded; she saw the animal repair its shell with the membranes on its front arms (which Aristotle mistook for sails). The membranes in fact secrete calcite, and the animal gently crafted and repaired its shell, evidence that it had created the shell itself.
She found not only that the paper nautilus did produce its own shells but that these were egg-sacks. She did the first studies of how these creatures reproduce. Argonauts have extreme sexual dimorphism; the females are twelve times as large as the males and the tiny males had not yet even been identified by science. She deduced that the small organisms which accompanied the egg sacks must be the male of the species, but later the truth was revealed to be even less probable; they were simply detached male reproductive organs which attach themselves to the female mantle. But, she was right to deduce these were part of the species' reproduction, yet her male peers dismissed her observations, insisting these were merely parasitic worms. She observed how the animals increase their shell sizes three times from August to December to make room for their young. She reported her results to the Academy of Catania in 1934 (and then was elected a member of this learned society) and in 1935 she sent her results to Paris to the Academy of Science. Her results were well received in Europe, though she faced some of her male peers doubted her; French zoologist Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville insisted argonauts scavenged their shells to the French Academy in 1936. She did not allow this to discourage her and she persisted in her work. Others like Sir Richard Owen, who defended her work in 1839 to the London Zoological Society and French malacologist Sander Rang who presented one of her papers, supported her research.
She published her first book in 1839, in French Observations et expériences physiques sur plusieurs animaux marins et terrestres (Observations and Physical Experiments on Several Marine and Terrestrial Animals) which included her evidence solving the mystery of the paper nautilus’ shell and her second in Italian, Guida per la Sicilia, a comprehensive guide to the local environment, including descriptions and illustrations of hundreds of plants, animals, fossils and minerals, was published in 1842. In 1860, she published a paper on the Octopus vulgaris, and showed that the animal uses tools, including stone to hold open Pinna nobilis, the noble pen shell or fan mussel shells.
She wrote passionately about conservation issues and developed the principles of sustainable aquaculture in Sicily. She was a talented artist and made lovely scientific illustrations of the species she observed. She was recognized for her science by her peers, admitted as the first woman in the scientific academy Catania Accademia Gioenia, as a correspondent member of the London Zoological Society and sixteen other learned societies. The famous biologist and paleontologist Sir Richard Owen called her "Mother of Aquariophily."
Tragically when she and her husband left Sicily in 1843, she lost most of her collections, many of her records and scientific illustrations in a shipwreck. This loss may explain how she gave up experimenting in her later life, though she continued to write and speak publically about the natural world. The couple divided their time between Paris and London. She fled Paris during a siege by the Prussian Army in 1870, and she returned to Juillac where she died in 1871.
A crater on Venus has been named Villepreux-Power in her honour in 1997.
Jeanne Villepreux-Power, Wikipedia, accessed December, 2019
Jeanne Villepreux-Power, Britannica.com, accessed December, 2019
Lauren J. Young, The Seamstress And The Secrets Of The Argonaut Shell, Science Friday, June 20, 2018
Celeste Olalquiaga, 'The Artificial Kingdom,' Pantheon Books, 1998.
Allcock, A. & Von Boletzky, Sigurd & Bonnaud, Laure & Brunetti, Norma & Cazzaniga, Nestor J. & Hochberg, Eric & Ivanovic, Marcela & Lipinski, Marek & Marian, José & Nigmatullin, Chingis & Nixon, Marion & Robin, Jean-Paul & Rodhouse, P. & Vidal, Erica. (2015). The role of female cephalopod researchers: past and present. Journal of Natural History. 49. 1235-1266. 10.1080/00222933.2015.1037088.