Margaret Fountaine

Margaret Fountaine was a natural scientist and lepidopterist. 🦋 She was also a diarist, illustrator, world traveler, and fearless adventurer. Her scientific achievements and her contribution to breaking down barriers to women in the natural sciences are significant.

She was born in May 1862 in Norwich, England. During her adult life, she traveled all over the world. In all, she visited at least 60 countries on six continents. As she went, she studied butterflies, raising many of them from caterpillars, and she collected and documented her specimens.  The Fountaine-Neimy Collection of 22,000 of her preserved butterflies is in the Norwich Castle Museum (new bucket list item!). Her butterfly sketch books are on exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London (another new bucket list item!).

She filled 12 volumes of a journal, which included over 3200 pages (photo above). It chronicles many events over her entire life, beginning when she was a teenager, and her feelings about many subjects.  In her diary, she was expressive, artistic, and meticulous. The early parts of her diary include sketches of cathedrals, pressed flowers, and writing about her visits to local butterfly garden. Later, when she traveled, in addition to studying and writing about butterflies, she met men and recorded those pursuits, sometimes in detail unusual for her time.

She inherited a substantial amount of money from her uncle when she was 27. She used the money to finance her travels and she traveled for the rest of her life, studying and collecting butterflies, and writing about them. During an early trip to Switzerland, shortly after she had obtained her inheritance, she wrote:

“I filled my pocket box with butterflies, some I had only seen in pictures as a child and yet recognized the moment I caught sight of them on the wing. I little thought years ago, when I used to look with covetous eyes at the plates representing the Scarce Swallowtail or the Camberwell Beauty that I should see both these in a valley in Switzerland and know the delight of securing specimens. I was a born naturalist, though all these years for want of anything to excite it, it had lain dormant within me.”

In 1901, she hired Khalil (Charles) Neimy, who she met in Damascus, to be her guide and translator (“dragoman”). He traveled extensively with Margaret for the rest of his life (he died in 1928). He was her constant companion and her collaborator in studying butterflies (thus the name of the Norwich Castle collection: Fountaine-Neimy).

In 1912, she was invited to join the Linnean Society of London, the oldest society for the study of biology, becoming one of the first women to be included. Despite this recognition and her significant contributions to science, she is often remembered more as a butterfly hobbyist, rather than a natural scientist, an unfortunate underestimation of her contribution to scientific knowledge about butterflies, and probably the result of both the then-prevailing view of women in science and of the scientific community’s view of her lack of formal, university-level training. The underestimation of her contributions to science is also at least partially attributable to the fact that many biographers have focused more on the emotional parts of her diary, and less on the scientific parts. This is regrettable since Margaret was clearly a committed scientist who dedicated her entire adult life to scientific research and meticulously recorded her results, amassing and documenting a collection of butterfly specimens that is second to none.

What follows is part of a note that was found with her diary, instructing that it not be opened for 100 years from the date she started it—April 15, 1878. The note seems quite insightful in that she foreshadows dramatic improvements in the education of young women between 1878 and 1978. She was right about that, but only because women like her were courageous enough to live their authentic lives and, in so doing, prove it could be done.

“Before presenting this – the Story of my Life – to those, whoever they may be, one hundred years from the date on which it was first commenced to be written, i.e. 15 April: 1878, I feel it incumbent upon me to offer some sort of apology for much that is recorded therein, especially during the first few years, when (I was barely 16 at the time it was begun) I naturally passed through a rather profitless and foolish period of life, such as was and no doubt is still, prevalent amongst very young girls, though perhaps more so then – a hundred years ago, when the education of women was so shamelessly neglected, leaving the uninitiated female to commence life with all the yearnings of nature quite unexplained to her, and the follies and foibles of youth only too ready to enter the hitherto unoccupied and possibly imaginative brain.

“Some writer has said . . . that “a woman’s whole life is a history of the affections – the heart is her world.” And indeed, there is alas! much that is only too true in this statement, for are not these loves, so fondly cherished and so dearly clung to, often merely as it were so many gates leading on, through paths of sorrow, to ultimate disaster and final loss? . . .

“For Charles Neimy, whose love and friendship for me endured for a period of no less than 27 years, ending only with his death, I felt a deep devotion and true affection; and certainly the most interesting part of my life was spent with him. The dear companion–the constant and untiring friend and assistant in our Entomological work, travelling as we did together over all the loveliest, the wildest and often the loneliest places of this most beautiful Earth, while the roving spirit and love of the wilderness drew us closely together in a bond of union in spite of our widely different spheres of life, race and individuality in a way that was often quite inexplicable to most of those who knew us.

To the Reader – maybe yet unborn – I leave this record of the wild and fearless life of one of the “South Acre Children”, who never ‘grew up’ – & who enjoyed greatly and suffered much. – M. E. Fountaine”

She died of a heart attack while traveling in Trinidad in 1940 when she was 78. She was buried there in an unmarked grave.

I picked her to profile both because she was a trailblazing scientist and adventurer and also because she has two of the same names as my daughter.  But I’m almost positive she’s not actually related to us. To read excerpts from her diary in her own words, check out “Love Among the Butterflies” by Margaret Fountaine, edited by W.F. Cater.

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