Jeanne Villepreux-Power (1794–1871)
- Here is a story of a woman, with patience and fortitude, who got her due in her lifetime, thanks to Sir Richard Owen — England’s preeminent scientist in the era before Charles Darwin, who read one of her letters and presented her findings to the London Zoological Society. Her research was a revelation. Her story below shows the why and how she developed her interest.
Villepreux-Power belonged to more than a dozen academies, including the London Zoological Society and the Gioenian Academy of Natural Sciences in Catania. In 1858 British anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owenreferred to Villepreux-Power as the mother of aquariophily. In 1997 a large crater on the surface of Venus was named for her.
“I armed myself with patience and courage, and only after several months managed to dissolve my doubts and see my research crowned with happy confirmation.”
- Jeanne Villepreux-Power (1794–1871) was 17 when she began her 186 mile walk from her home in rural France to her dream job as a seamstress in Paris. On the way, the cousin assigned as her guardian sexually assaulted her and fled with her identity papers. Jeanne found shelter in a convent and, as soon as she had new travel documents, kept going. By the time she made it to Paris, the position she had been promised was already taken. The only job she could secure was as a seamstress’s assistant.
- Four years (and thousands of dresses) later, Jeanne was tasked with outfitting a duchess for a royal wedding. At the ceremony, she met and fell in love with an English merchant, married & moved with him to Messina, Sicily. There, she immersed herself in reading about geology and natural history and set out to study the island’s ecosystem.
Walking the shoreline and wading into the sea in her long skirts, she observed one of Earth’s most alien life-forms: the small octopus Argonauta argo, known as paper nautilus. This creature had fascinated naturalists like Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci with the mystery of its spiral shell. They wondered whether the animal made it, or, like the hermit crab, inherited as a hand-me-down.
Observing argonauts in the wild is incredibly difficult — the skittish creatures flee the surface and plunge into the depths as soon as they feel they are being approached, puffing a cloud of ink between themselves and their perceived predator.
To bypass their shyness, Jeanne designed and constructed the world’s first offshore research station— a system of immense cages she anchored off the coast, complete with observation windows through which she could study the argonauts undisturbed. Every day, she prepared food for them, rowed her boat to the cages, and knelt at the platform, making notes & drawings.
- In a series of groundbreaking experiments, she began in 1833 — the final year of her thirties — the seamstress-turned-scientist solved the ancient mysteries of whether, how, and when the argonaut makes its spiral home: she demonstrated “by unequivocal proofs, that the female Argonauta octopus is the builder of its shell.”
- Her most revolutionary experiment demonstrated a phenomenon no one had ever imagined. Jeanne made a small puncture in the shell of an adult female to see whether and how the animal would repair itself, and what that might reveal about its intelligence, in an era when science was yet to recognize the consciousness of non-human animals. She watched in marvel as the octopus protruded its front arms and, sweeping the silvery membranes previously thought to function as sails over the puncture like a windshield wiper, seal it back into cohesion with a glutenous substance, the chemical composition of which she analyzed and determined to be identical to the calcium carbonate of the original shell. The restored part, she observed, was more robust than the shell itself, “somewhat bumpy, puffy,” not following the regular furrows of the shell but corrugating sideways, a sort of scar.
- Next, she developed an experiment that only someone who had spent years sewing pieces of fabric together might consider. She decided to see whether the argonaut could repair its shell using spare parts. She broke off a small piece of an adult’s shell, but this time she placed in the tank next to it fragments from other shells. To her astonishment, the argonaut rushed to the pieces and began feeling them out with its arms, searching for the suitable shape, then applied it to its own shell and began the work of welding, struggling to orient the furrows of the borrowed piece parallel to those of its existing shell to patch the hole.
- She spent hours bent over the cage, watching this staggering feat of multiple intelligences. Naturalists before her, working only with dead specimens and theoretical conjecture, had declared this impossible. For closer observation, Jeanne invented the first aquarium. Her home became a marine biology lab, stacked with vast tanks. She started with the obvious yet radical insight that you cannot understand the living morphology of a creature by studying dead specimens (how all naturalists studied at the time).
- To find out when and how the argonaut gets to have a shell, you must observe it from birth. She wrote: “I armed myself with patience and courage, and only after several months managed to dissolve my doubts and see my research crowned with happy confirmation.”
- Since women were excluded from the scientific establishment, unable to attend universities or speak at learned societies, her research was transmitted to the world by proxy. In 1839, Sir Richard Owen — England’s preeminent scientist in the era before Charles Darwin, read one of her letters and presented her findings to the London Zoological Society. Her research was a revelation. Soon, it was being published in English, French, and German, and circulated widely across Europe. By the end of her long life, she belonged to more than a dozen scientific societies. Her research not only illuminated an enduring mystery about the physiology and biology of a particular species of octopus, but, through her experiments on shell repair, laid the groundwork for the study of octopus intelligence, which has forever changed our understanding of consciousness itself.
The Seamstress Who Solved an Ancient Mystery of Octopus Intelligence
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