Mini: The Undercover Botanist
ELAH FEDER: Hey!
ANNIE MINOFF: Hey! Annie and Elah here. Long time no episode, but we have a mini story for you.
ELAH FEDER: We do. This month Annie and I were at On Air Fest, which is a a podcast festival in Brooklyn. We were talking about a little slice of science history that we’d actually wanted to share with you last season, but couldn’t.
ANNIE MINOFF: For reasons that you will soon hear. This story has, oh my gosh, famous plants, a case of mistaken identity, a dangerous round the world voyage by ship. It’s also about how it can be really tough for us producers to tell science history stories.
ELAH FEDER: Mm-hmm. So we’re going to play for that you in a sec. Note that this talk did have some pictures that went along with it. You can see some of those up at undiscoveredpodcast.org/plants. Might enhance your listening experience.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah.
ELAH FEDER: Alright. Here’s the story, recorded live at On Air Fest.
SPEAKER 1: Please give it up for Annie and Elah.
ANNIE MINOFF: Hey. These work. Awesome. I’m Annie. This is Elah. We are the co-hosts of a show called Undiscovered from Science Friday and WNYC Studios.
Undiscovered is a science podcast. But a lot of the time, it is also a science history podcast, because we love old stuff.
ELAH FEDER: We do love old stuff. We also hate old stuff. Because covering science history can be really, really frustrating. It can feel like you're cycling through the same handful of names over and over again, like Einstein.
ANNIE MINOFF: Perhaps you have heard of the man.
ELAH FEDER: Einstein did some cool science. But he's been super, super well-covered. At Science Friday, we get all these free press books in the mail. Way too many of them are about Einstein. So we did a quick search for books about him. And we found books about old Einstein, young Einstein, thinking like Einstein, walking with Einstein, Einstein going on vacation, Einstein's war, Einstein greatest mistake. And actually, just two days ago before this talk, Annie walks over to me. And she's like, look at this. "Einstein's wife.
ANNIE MINOFF: Because women are also involved in science.
And I was joking to Elah. I was like, someone out there is working on a manuscript for Einstein's favorite pair of tube socks. And we were like, wait a second.
ELAH FEDER: This is genius.
ANNIE MINOFF: This is our ticket to The New York Times bestseller list. And we quickly threw together a little cover art.
ELAH FEDER: A little mock-up.
ANNIE MINOFF: This title, his life, his times, his tube socks.
ELAH FEDER: We thought maybe-- and someone might write, it was an unflinching examination of a man who refused to toe the line. Anyway, I thought it was pretty good.
[LAUGHTER AND GROANS]
ANNIE MINOFF: Except, slight problem, this particular angle has also been covered. A quick Google reveals this article. This is not facetious. This is an article about the fact that Einstein preferred to go barefoot and what this means about the nature of scientific inquiry.
ELAH FEDER: Not satirical. So it can start to feel like all of science history is just Einstein. Sometimes it's also Darwin, Galileo. And then if we want to have diversity, we throw in Marie Curie occasionally.
So when we heard about someone named Jeanne Baret, we were really excited, because first, she's a woman. Two, she was someone that we hadn't heard of, which was pretty cool. And she actually had what sounded like a really good story.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah, so if you also have never heard of Jeanne Baret, she was a botanist in the 1700s. She was also the first woman we know of to completely circumnavigate the globe. She sailed from continent to continent collecting plants for science.
And how did she do that at a time where it was literally illegal to be a woman onboard a French naval expedition? She disguised herself as a man. And there she is in her manly pants.
So we knew right away, of course, we had to do an episode of Undiscovered about this woman. She had everything that I think, as podcast producers, we were looking for. Like, we had a character. Things happened to that character. There are stakes. There is cool 18th century botany, which is a plus for our audience. So we knew we had to do this.
And we really tried very hard to tell Jeanne Baret's story on our show. And we ended up killing the episode. And this talk is about why we did that.
ELAH FEDER: And a little bit about Jeanne Baret. So first--
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah.
ELAH FEDER: --a little bit--
ANNIE MINOFF: Before we get to the bad stuff.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah, we wanted-- we need to tell this story. So Jeanne Baret was born in the 1740s in France to a poor family. And demographically speaking, she shouldn't have traveled more than 20 kilometers out of her little village in her lifetime. And that lifetime should have been pretty short. The average life expectancy-- we looked this up-- for a woman in France at that time was 26 or 27.
So at 27, Jeanne Baret is miraculously not dead. Already an accomplishment. She's actually sailing the globe. And her ticket out of her little village was this guy, Philibert Commerson.
So a bit about Commerson. Commerson is a man-- or was a man-- so obsessed with plants that his idea of a fun, wild night out in college was to sneak into the local botanical gardens. He'd actually scale the walls so that he could steal plants.
So Jeanne has the good fortune, or possibly misfortune-- you'll see--of being hired as his housekeeper. She's also probably his lover. We have evidence that they had a child together. And when Commerson is invited to be the botanist on France's very first expedition around the globe, Jeanne Baret comes with him.
Of course, as Annie mentioned, that's not really allowed for a woman at that time. And so Jeanne Baret binds her breasts. Jeanne becomes Jean and comes to be known on the ship as Commerson's male assistant.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yes. And together, these two people rack up several lifetimes' worth of truly amazing botanical discoveries. They collected ferns in Java, morning glory in Mauritius, carnivorous flowers in Patagonia. They collect literally thousands of plant specimens.
We know that Commerson had some pretty painful leg ulcers. And so Baret often did a lot of the heavy lifting on these collecting trips. One of the things we're told is that Commerson referred to her as his beast of burden, just like--
ELAH FEDER: Sweet.
ANNIE MINOFF: --a cute pet name. And so it's entirely possible that Baret was the one to make one of the most important botanical discoveries on this expedition. And that was the discovery of this plant. Can anyone tell-- do we have plant fans? Yeah.
SPEAKER 2: Bougainvillea.
ANNIE MINOFF: Bougainvillea. Yep. This is, like, a botanical blockbuster. This plant is huge.
ELAH FEDER: So in 2017, we were really excited to tell Jeanne Baret's story. We thought we had it made. And very quickly, it fell apart. Yeah. Because Jeanne Baret-- it might not surprise you guys-- but she's a fact-checker's nightmare.
First of all, there's just her name. She went by at least six that we know of. She lied about her background constantly, which makes a lot of sense if you're living in disguise and in hiding. And then there's just the science that she did. We make a science podcast. And we were really curious to know what she should be credited for.
So on this trip, we know there were a lot of exciting scientific discoveries, or at least discoveries of plants that were new to Western science. And we know that this "beast of burden" should be credited with a lot of the collecting on that trip.
But if you look up plants today-- you can find these plants in plant libraries around the world. If you look them up, the name on the label is always Commerson. It's never Jeanne Baret.
ANNIE MINOFF: Exactly. So her story, of course, is kind of riddled with biographical holes. But also, as a character, she's completely silent. And of course, we knew that there would be no tape of her-- not a surprise. But she also didn't leave any letters or diaries so we don't have anything written in her words. And without having her words, it's really hard to answer some pretty key questions about her story.
So questions like why? Why did she step aboard this ship and sail around the world? It was incredibly dangerous. It was a long journey. Was it a sense of scientific discovery? Was it a lust for travel, to see the world at a time when that was so rare? Did she not want to go, and her plant-obsessed boss/lover decided this was what was going to happen? Like, I don't know because Baret doesn't tell us. And if I don't know, I can't tell you.
Instead, what we're left to rely on are secondhand accounts of her, largely from the men who were on this expedition with her, which is how we get this next story about what one imagines was one of the most traumatic moments on this voyage for her.
So this is a story that comes from the diary of the ship's surgeon, a total creep named Francois Vives.
ELAH FEDER: We should probably have a content warning.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah.
ANNIE MINOFF: It's a bit of a disturbing story. But Vives writes that rumors had been going on around the ship about Baret's identity. Maybe people noticed that she didn't grow a beard, that she never stripped, that she kept to herself. The ship was not that big. It was 100 feet long. So one imagines that it's really hard to keep a secret in these kind of circumstances.
And he writes that one day that she was on shore collecting seashells or perhaps washing her clothes, when a group of the ship's servants decide that they are going to take it upon themselves to answer this question of her true sex, which he says they do by forcibly examining her. And he tells this like it is a hilarious story. He follows it up with a rape joke.
And these are the kinds of narrators we were depending on to tell this woman's story. And that did not feel great.
And this is the really frustrating thing about trying to celebrate those hidden figures in science history. A lot of the time, they are very, very hidden.
ELAH FEDER: Sometimes, they're literally hidden. Some of you might have seen this photo that was making the rounds on Twitter last year. Any of you recognize that?
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah, so this is a photo from the 1971 International Conference on the Biology of Whales. And as you can see, it's mostly men, a lot of them in suits, some in ties. And so this woman, Candace Jean Anderson, saw this photo. And she wondered who this person was. You can see, in the close-up, a bit grainy. It seems like in this group of mostly white men, there's a black woman wearing a headband. And she's literally half hidden behind this guy with this really awesome '70s hairdo.
So Candace wonders, you know, who is this? She's looking at the caption. All of the men are named in the caption. This woman isn't.
And so she posts to Twitter asking people for help. And pretty soon, people are excited about this mystery woman. They want to find her. Hundreds of people start pitching in. They chase a few red hearings.
They end up contacting a guy at the Smithsonian who was around at the time that the photo was taken. And he actually remembers her. And then they track her down on Facebook, which was extra tricky, because she had changed her name by that point.
And they find out that she is Sheila Minor. This is her.
Yeah. So what we know that Sheila-- at the time, she was an animal tech at the Smithsonian Museum. Today, she is retired. She lives in Virginia. We know she likes to belly dance.
So just think about that. That's what it took to find a woman scientist who was working 50 years ago, right?
ANNIE MINOFF: And is on Facebook.
ELAH FEDER: And is alive and on Facebook. Now, think about what it would take to find a French-- a poor French woman living in disguise over 250 years ago.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah.
ELAH FEDER: Like, you're not going to find out a lot of information about her.
ANNIE MINOFF: So everything about Baret's situation makes it really hard for us to know her or to feel that we know her. And without that information, it's really hard to tell the kinds of stories that I think a lot of us here in this room enjoy making, which are nonfiction, narrative stories about people who are fully fleshed-out human beings doing things that we know happened.
And so we made this decision to not do the episode. And that hurt a lot. It hurt because I had talked to seven people and done a lot of field reporting. But mostly, it hurt because, of course, whenever we leave out the stories of the Jeanne Barets and the Sheila Minors, we are left with this impression that, you know, maybe science history is the story of a handful of white dudes, and sometimes, Marie Curie, if we feel like making a point.
Of course, this is not just a problem that we run into as storytellers in science. I would bet that if any of you have covered the past in any way, you've come up against some version of this kind of hidden figures problem.
ELAH FEDER: OK, so what do we do? This is the solutions part. We're going to do our best.
Well, one thing we can do-- and I think a lot of us, as podcasters and storytellers, are already thinking hard about this right now. We cover the present differently. So if we want someone from the present to be remembered in the future, we get their story down now. We write their names all over the place. Maybe we caption that photo. That could really be-- that could be a really useful clue to someone down the road.
And that's where Baret and other figures in the past that we pretty much have forgotten at this point, we can start to get really creative about how we preserve their names and stories for the future, for another 250 years.
So here is what a botanist named Eric Tepe did for Jeanne Baret not too long ago. In 2010, Eric is sitting in his car, listening to public radio. And he hears an interview with the author, Glynis Ridley about Jeanne Baret. And Eric is a botanist. So he is excited. He's leaning in. And he thinks that this is--
ERIC TEPE: --you know, a riveting story. This woman had-- was the first woman to sail around the world, collected plants all around the world. I mean, a botanist's dream, really, to be able to do that. And god, the story stuck in my head. And it stewed for a couple days. And of course, she mentioned that Commerson was commemorated by a number of species, but Baret wasn't.
ANNIE MINOFF: So botanists have named over 100 plant species to commemorate Philibert Commerson. And at this point, Baret had no plants named after her. And Eric figures out, wait a second, I can fix that. Because Eric Tepe had just discovered a new species of plant. It's a species of Solanum, which is the genus of potato-tomato plants. And he hadn't named that new species of Solanum yet.
So this is Solanum baretiae. It is not a flashy plant like bougainvillea. It's got these somewhat smallish, white flowers. It creates this fruit that looks a little bit like a cherry tomato, and according to Eric, smells truly terrible.
But it's a scrappy vine. It grows up in places like road cuts, where other plants can't hack it. And for Baret, I think that's perfect. Thank you.
SPEAKER 1: Thank you. Please keep giving it up for them. That was amazing. I just want to say, when the Latin name of the plant came up and you applauded, that was the first time I've ever seen a Latin name for a plant being applauded. So thank you for the first experience of my life. [FADES LOW]
ELAH FEDER: This story was reported and performed live at On Air Fest by me, Elah Feder.
ANNIE MINOFF: And by me, Annie Minoff. And if you want to know more about what we do and do not know about the mysterious Jeanne Baret, two books you can check out: Glynis Ridley's The Discovery of Jeanne Baret and John Dunmore's Monsieur Baret. Links to those plus a lot of pretty pictures are at undiscoveredpodcast.org/plants.
ELAH FEDER: And that’s it for now. We'll see you soon.