Aquarium Inventor: Jeanne Villepreux-Power

A few weeks ago Meena wrote about modern-day aquariums. Quite by chance I recently discovered that the first inventor of the aquarium was a woman! Her name was Jeanne Villepreux-Power and she was much more than just an inventor. She was a leading 19th-century leading French naturalist and marine biologist. With just a basic education, and very little knowledge of more than simple reading and writing, Jeanne Villepreux not only taught herself much more, but did ground-breaking work in marine biology.

Jeanne was born in 1794 in a village in France in a family of shoemakers. Her mother died when she was eleven years old, and the young Jeanne dreamt of becoming a dressmaker. To follow this dream, when she was eighteen, she set out on foot for Paris, a journey of over 300 km. After many hardships enroute, she finally made it to Paris and spent the next few years as a dressmaker’s assistant, making hundreds of dresses for the rich and famous. It was at one of the weddings for which she had made the dresses that she met a successful English merchant James Power. The two married in 1818, and the couple lived in Sicily for the next several years. It was here that Jeanne became fascinated with the island and its natural environment. Jeanne had never had any science education but she immersed herself in reading everything she could about the natural history, geology and ecosystem of the island. She also closely observed and noted the flora and fauna, she collected specimens of minerals, fossils, butterflies and shells. Gradually her interest focussed on marine life and she began walking along the shoreline and wading into the ocean in her long cumbersome skirts to closely study fish and shelled marine creatures.

The creature that began to dominate her interest was a small octopus Argonauta argo which was also known as Argonaut or paper nautilus because of the thin, intricately corrugated shell of its females. These octopuses spend their lives drifting near the surface of tropical and subtropical seas, whereas most other octopus live on the sea floor. The females of the argonauts make a fragile, translucent shell to carry incubating eggs. The shell also acts as a ballast tank which aids their movement in the water.

The argonaut had fascinated naturalists since Aristotle with the mystery of its spiral shell—did the octopus ‘borrow’ a discarded shell as the hermit crab did, or did it make its own shell? Why was the shape of the shell so different from that of its dweller, and why did only the female have a shell?

Jeanne set out to unravel these mysteries. As she wrote in her research memoirs: Having for several years devoted to the natural sciences the hours that remained to me free from my domestic affairs, while I was classifying some marine objects for my study, the octopus of the Argonauta transfixed my attention above the rest, because naturalists have been of such various opinions about this mollusk.

But observing these shy creatures was a daunting task. While they appeared on the surface they quickly plunged deep into the sea as soon as they sensed anything close by. Jeanne spent hours, and years, quietly and patiently waiting and watching, and sketching (she taught herself). She realised that the mystery of how and why the shell was made could not be solved through preserved specimens. She had to regularly observe the living creatures. Towards this end Jeanne designed a system of huge cages complete with observation windows through which she could study the argonauts undisturbed. She anchored these off the coast of Sicily. Every day she would row out to the cages, and spend hours observing the creatures from a platform above the cages. This was wet, uncomfortable, and back breaking work. She needed to have some way of continuing her observations in a different way. 

Jeanne the marine scientist applied her mind to engineering now. She made a series of large glass tanks in her home, and populated these with living argonauts. Now she could conduct observations and experiments of all types in a lab-like situation which still provided the marine organisms with a near-natural environment. And so in 1832, the first recognisable glass aquarium had been designed! Jeanne also developed two other aquarium designs: a glass apparatus placed within a cage for use in shallow water and a cage-like aquarium capable of lowering its contents to various depths.

After a series of ground-breaking experiments with these captive marine creatures which she began in 1833, and five years of hours of patience and persistence, Jeanne was able to observe how the argonaut makes its own spiral home, and also is capable of repairing it in case of damage. In doing so she not only solved a long-debated mystery of whether these creatures made their own shells, but also revealed the innate “intelligence” of the octopus in a period when science was yet to recognise the consciousness of non-human animals.  

Jeanne wrote papers to support her research, but as a woman she was unable to present these at scientific conferences or societies, so these were read by male scientists on her behalf. In 1839 Sir Richard Owen, an eminent scientist of his time, presented her findings before the London Zoological Society. Jeanne’s work attracted attention and began to be published in many languages.

In 1839 Villepreux-Power published a book describing her observations of the Argonaut and other animals. In 1842 she published a comprehensive guide to the island of Sicily. The following year Jeanne and her husband relocated from Sicily to London. During the move, the ship carrying most of her scientific documents and collections sank, and these were lost forever. After her move to England Jeanne no longer did scientific research, but she continued with her writing. It was only towards the end of her life that Jeanne Villepreux-Power was accepted into scientific societies in England and Europe. She died on January 26, 1871. Sadly, Jeanne was forgotten for more than a century after her death. It was only around 1997, that her work was rediscovered. In the same year, Jeanne’s name was given to a major crater on Venus discovered by the Magellan probe. 

–Mamata

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