metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium

Castor oil plant (Ricinus communis) from Maria Sibylla’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium

In 2007 edition of Guinness World Records the castor oil plant was named the most poisonous plant in the world. Just 4-8 seeds are enough to kill a grown person. The toxicity of this plant is due to the ricin it contains. Ricin is a chemical compound that inhibits ribosomes in the cells. As ribosomes are the molecules which produce proteins in the cells, once ricin interacts with ribosomes the protein production stops and it eventually kills the cell. 

Extracts of castor oil plant have been widely used both as medicine and as poison. Under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention ricin is marked as a schedule 1 controlled substance. Over the course of history ricin has been considered for use as a biological weapon as a part of bombs and bullets. In medicine ricin has been used in experiments involving cancer tumor treatment and improvement of vaccine immunogenicity. 

Maria Sibylla Merian - Entomologist & Scientific Illustrator

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we’re sharing portraits of some pioneering women in STEM.

Born in Frankfurt in 1647, Maria Sibylla Merian went on to become one of the biggest contributors to the field of entomology through her highly-accurate illustrations. Cut off from the universities and academies of men, Merian was a self-taught naturalist who worked out of her kitchen. Instead of following the tradition of illustrating specimens lifelessly pinned down, Merian depicted insects actively transforming through stages of metamorphosis.

After 8 years of study, she was awarded a grant by the city of Amsterdam to travel to South America. At the time, this type of grant was an honor only men could expect to receive. Since the purpose of her trip was entirely scientific, Merian could be considered the first person to go on a scientific expedition. Malaria caused her to return to Europe after two years. Once back, she published her major work, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, in 1705. Her observation and documentation on the metamorphosis of the butterfly have enshrined her in scientific history.

A flower of a banana plant from Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium (1705) by Maria Sibylla Merian. 

Bananas were first cultivated Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea in around 5000BCE. The wild banana fruits have large undigestible seeds in them but the most popular commercial Cavendish variety is a triploid plant that lacks any viable seeds. Consequently, the Cavendish bananas are parthenocarpic (literally meaning ‘virgin fruits’) and have to be propagated asexually using offshoots.    

This week we will take a look at the works of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). Maria was born in Frankfurt and took off as a scientific illustrator. She was a naturalist, detailing flowers and insects with a stunning amount of accuracy. This is her piece Watermelon which she illustrated in her book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705).

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 31 from ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’ (1705) (courtesy Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt)


The Weekly Squint—
Detail of a page from Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the insects of Surinam), 1730, on view in the permanent exhibition “Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World” in Dibner Hall.

Squint is an every-Thursday post that features snapshots of small, obscure Huntington details that catch our eye. It’s a little window into some of the delightful minutiae that bring a smile to our collective face.