Tanja Hammel: Mary Elizabeth Barber (1818-1899): A History of Knowledge, Gender and Natural History

PhD-project in History, University of Basel

This micro-historical case study is situated at the intersection of anthropological history (Historische Anthropologie), visual history and history of knowledge. Mary Elizabeth Barber (1818-1899) was an exceptional British born and South African-based naturalist. In her pursuit of Humboldtian science, she transgressed gender boundaries, borders between the colonies and the metropolis, and between local and international knowledge. In a micro-historical inquiry, this PhD investigates the conditions of knowledge production. Despite her rheumatism, the Frontier Wars (1834-1879), the Diamond (1871) and Gold Rushes (1886), she corresponded with influential scientists of her time, such as entomologist Roland Trimen (1840-1916), botanists William H. Harvey (1811-1866) and Joseph D. Hooker (1817-1911) as well as naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82). The colonial situation as well as the settlers’ pre-Victorian (Georgian) ideals allowed her independently pursuing science at a time women could hardly become members of scientific societies. Her scientific illustrations and watercolours allow a glance at the visual culture, visual epistemology and scientific practices at the time. Bridging the abovementioned sub-disciplines, scientific knowledge is seen as based on multisensory, emotional and intellectual perceptions of the environment. Her research agenda drew on scientific contexts and conventions, current (e.g. social Darwinist) discourse as well as colonial power structures. This project contributes to a wider debate on the process of scientific knowledge accumulation through an examination of gender, locality and subjectivity in the transnational making of knowledge about nature.