Mary Elizabeth Barber (1818-1899): An Early South African Citizen Scientist

by Jane Carruthers FRSSAf

Mary Elizabeth Barber was the first, and for a long time the only, female member of the South African Philosophical Society, established in Cape Town in 1877 and the ancestor of the Royal Society of South Africa. The Philosophical Society was founded on the premise ‘That it is desirable to form a society for promoting scientific inquiry and original research in South Africa and recording its results’.  At a time when amateur natural history was morphing into what were to become the professional environmental sciences, Mary Barber made a substantial contribution to a number of emerging disciplines in South Africa. There are detailed publications about Mary Barber and her work and I hope that this ‘Fragment of History’ tempts readers to peruse them.

At the age of two, Mary Bowker accompanied her British 1820 Settler parents Miles Bowker and Anna Mitford to South Africa. The Bowkers were among the wealthiest of the Settlers and were to become one of the major landed families in the Eastern Cape, adding to their extensive properties on land conquered from the Xhosa. Initially, they were settled at the mouth of the Great Fish River and, together with a small network, they were among those who embraced scientific endeavour as a link between science and colonial development. Guy Butler describes the Bowkers as ‘gentlemen farmers’, a ‘squirearchical’ family, who had experienced the agricultural revolution in Britain and were thus familiar with modern techniques of, for example, selective stock-breeding, the ‘enclosure’, and the ‘marling’ of open fields (Butler 1974:11)

Mary was encouraged by her father and her many brothers (there were eventually nine of them, and one sister) to take an interest in natural history and it did not take her long to become familiar with many indigenous plants and also to paint them. In 1842 she married Frederick Barber, an analytical chemist who had arrived at the Cape in 1839 to join his cousin, the well-known Dr. W.G. Atherstone of Grahamstown.  The family, therefore, was locally scientifically well-connected.

Mary became more involved in botany after William Harvey, a former Colonial Treasurer at the Cape and then at Trinity College, Dublin, invited the public to contribute to the knowledge of Cape plants. Mary had read Harvey’s book, The Genera of South African plants according to the natural system published in 1838, was enthused by it, and thus began a 30-year correspondence between them, during which she sent Harvey around 1,000 species with appropriate notes on each. At first, however, she gave her name as M. Bowker, and it took Harvey a while to discover that he was writing to a woman (Hammel 2015:87).

Through Atherstone she wrote to Sir William Hooker, offering her paintings of South African plants, feeling privileged, as a farmer’s wife, to live in ‘a paradise for a naturalist’.  Later, she sent paintings (in lieu of specimens) to Joseph Hooker at Kew. Although sometimes self-deprecating in her correspondence, she was not intimidated by her famous British connections and the science she shared with them. Often, she worked together with her brother James Henry Bowker who, as an active soldier in the many Frontier Wars of the time, was obliged to visit little-known locations of the Eastern Cape and was able to collect unusual specimens.

In time, Mary Barber expanded her interests to include birds, moths, butterflies and insects, learning their life histories and painting many of them. By sending specimens and paintings she also assisted Roland Trimen, an entomologist, and Edgar Layard, an ornithologist, at the South African Museum in Cape Town. Both expressed their appreciation to her in the important pioneering books that they were to write.

When diamonds were discovered, Mary and her family (she had three children) moved to the diggings at Kimberley in 1869. The Frontier Wars had taken their toll on the family’s wealth in the Eastern Cape and a living had to be sought elsewhere. There, she took up an interest in the many reptiles she encountered in that arid environment as well as in geology and palaeontology, sending specimens to the South African Museum. In addition, she painted scenes of life on the diamond fields at this early stage of their exploitation and even found time to write verse. Apparently, she and her husband became a magnet of intellectualism in Kimberley, sought after by men such as Cecil Rhodes and Frederick Courteney Selous.  

As a stereotypical Victorian woman, but also a self-confident one (perhaps liberated by her colonial environment), the rather stern-looking Mary’s gentle response to the invitation, in 1878, to join the South African Philosophical Society was, ‘I have no objection … and I don’t see any reason why a Lady should not in a quiet way be a member of any scientific society… I do not by any means approve of ladies coming publicly forward and usurping the places of men by preaching, making speeches, etc., but I don’t see why they should not belong to any society that they are qualified for, and in a quiet way enjoy the privileges too’. She was, however, less circumspect in her private correspondence in 1847 to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Mitford Bowker. In a letter about breaking up the Kat River settlement, a missionary experiment to which many of the Settlers, including the Bowker family, were vehemently opposed believing the Khoikhoi at Kat River should be forced into service for the colonists, Mary ended her letter with, ‘I have no longer any respect for what he [local politician, Robert Godlonton] writes … All men are lyars [sic]’ (Le Cordeur 1981:189).

Mary Barber’s first publication, in 1869, appeared in the popular British journal Scientific Opinion in which she described the hypnotic effect that snakes seem to have on their prey. Her next was in 1870 in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and was entitled ‘The Aloe: its habits and culture’. She did not become a member of the Linnean Society of London (women were admitted only in 1905) but her papers were read before the society and published in its journal in 1870 and 1871. She also published in the Transactions of the Entomological Society in 1874, an article about the butterfly Papilio nireus with the byline, ‘communicated by Charles Darwin’. Through the intercession of Emil Holub, she was the first female member of the Ornithologischer Verein in Vienna, the main ornithological society in Austria and several of her papers were translated into Hungarian. Having witnessed migratory locust swarms and their predatory birds, one of her articles that appeared in the Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society in 1878 combined ornithology and entomology and was entitled ‘Locusts and locust birds’.

            To 20th century scientists Mary Barber’s most significant connection was with Charles Darwin, who had visited Cape Town in 1836, and with whom she corresponded after being introduced by Roland Trimen, particularly on the matter of plant pollination. It was with his assistance that several of her papers appeared in print. She was an admirer of Darwin, had read his books, and wrote about his work in her paper ‘On the peculiar colours of animals in relation to habits of life’, published in the Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society in 1878. She believed that it was Darwin who put ‘us on the right track’ and enabled us ‘to spell out the book of nature with Mr Darwin’s alphabet in our hands’. In defending Darwin, she was attacking Alfred Russel Wallace, who had argued against Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Hammel has suggested that Barber was infuriated that Wallace had overlooked her achievements, particularly her evidence of female mate selection (Hammel 2015:95-96).

A less far less admirable ‘Darwinian’ notion espoused by Mary Barber was her attraction to rising social Darwinism. In common with many white colonials of her time, she was a racialist who believed that black people were placed on a lower rung on the scale of evolution. In an article in the Cape Monthly Magazine about Kimberley, for example, she compared the Khoikhoi language to that of animals and, in another, she included disparaging comments about her servant. As Beinart observes, ‘Darwin is unlikely to have rejoiced in this formulation’ (Beinart 1998:798, n.133).

            When gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886, the Barber family moved to Johannesburg. A few years before her husband retired, there was enough money to finance Mary’s first visit to Europe. In 1889, she finally met some of her scientific friends in Europe and visited the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The couple returned to Grahamstown, but after Frederick’s death in 1892 she lived with her children in Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg. She died in Natal in 1899.

            Mary Barber’s collection of paintings, papers and specimens are in the Albany museum in Grahamstown and her journal is held by the Cory Library at Rhodes University.

The genus Barberetta (family Haemodoraceae) with one known species Barberetta aurea, endemic to South Africa, was named for Mary Barber by W.H. Harvey in 1868. The family is commemorated by the genus Bowkeria, commonly called ‘shell flower’, also endemic to South Africa.

Barber, M. E., ‘On the peculiar colours of animals in relation to habits of life’, Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society 4, 1878, 27-45.
Barber, M.E., ‘Locusts and locust birds’, Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society 4, 1878, 193-218.
Barber, M.E., ‘Wanderings in South Africa by sea and land, 1879’. Published in 5 parts in the Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library, Vols. 17(3 & 4) and 18 (1 & 2), 1962-1963.
Beinart, W., ‘Men, science, travel and nature in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Cape’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 24 (4), 1998, 775-799.
Butler, G. ed., The 1820 Settlers: An Illustrated Commentary. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1974.
Cohen, A., ‘Mary Elizabeth Barber, some early South African geologists and the discoveries of gold’, South African Journal of Economic History, 15 (1-2), 2002, 1–19. doi:10.1080/10113430009511122.
Cohen, A., ‘Mary Elizabeth Barber: South Africa’s first lady natural historian’, Archives of Natural History, 27 (2), 2010, 187-208.
Hammel, T., ‘Thinking with birds: Mary Elizabeth Barber’s advocacy for gender equality in ornithology’, Kronos, 41 (1), 2015, 85–111. 
Hammel, T., ‘Mary Barber’s expedition journal: An experimental space to voice social concerns’, in Expeditions as Experiments: Practising Observation and Documentation, edited by M. Klemun and U. Spring. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, pp.121-140.
Johnson, S.D., ‘Darwin’s legacy in South African evolutionary biology’, South African Journal of Science, 105, 2009, 403-409.
Le Cordeur, B.A., The Politics of Eastern Cape Separatism 1820-1854. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Plug, C. (comp.) Biography of Mary Elizabeth Barber,S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science.

            (Accessed 2 November 2017)