Unknown, underappreciated, overlooked—all descriptors that typically find themselves at the beginning of an historical spotlight on a woman of science. And all adjectives that are generally true, too. Women are vastly underrepresented for their scientific contributions, especially those in the 19th and early 20th century. Many of these women were, and still are, often overshadowed or resigned to a footnote in botanical works in which their exquisite artwork is prominently featured.
The story of Sarah Frances Price begins somewhat the same way—she is relatively unknown today despite tireless work as a naturalist, botanist, artist, teacher, and author. Sadie, as she was known, wasn’t overshadowed or resigned to a footnote. She was making a name for herself in botanical circles when her life and work was cut short.
Today, her watercolor and pencil drawings of Kentucky’s flora and fauna are preserved in the archives of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and her pressed plant collection stored in the Garden Herbarium. The Garden has digitized more than 50 works of art, herbarium specimens, and correspondence to help shed more light on the important scientific contributions of Sadie Price.
The Back Story
Sadie Price was born in 1849, and spent much of her childhood in Bowling Green, Kentucky. In her 20s, Price was stricken with a mysterious back ailment that kept her bedridden for a decade. For income, Price began teaching watercolor painting, using birds and plants that students would collect and bring to her bedside.
In the early 1880’s, Price finally sought treatment for her condition, greatly improving her mobility. She no longer led classes bedside, instead taking students on nature study field trips to the Kentucky woods. Price prided herself on always being respectfully attired in full-length skirts, despite the added difficulty in traversing the terrain.
Price appeared to be keenly aware that her activities were outside the normal expectations for women of the day. As a friend described to the Kentucky Warbler after Price’s death, “Miss Sadie thought that men were making fun of her because she had stepped out of the usual role of a woman. She thought they objected to her activities as a naturalist, because she was doing things that only men should do. It was a fixation with her.”
Rise to Prominence
Price began giving lectures on plants, birds, insects, and other nature subjects. She penned several scientific papers and corresponded with other leading botanists of the time. Her artwork also won her public acclaim. An exhibition of her plant and bird illustrations won first prize at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
Price authored several small botanical leaflets, but her best-known work is The Fern-Collectors Handbook and Herbarium published in 1897. The work serves as an index and identification guide to the ferns of the eastern United States, and as Price’s only published work of botanical art. Each illustration was set opposite a blank page, where the reader was encouraged to insert a pressed fern to match.
Just as Sadie Price was achieving notoriety in the field of botany, she died suddenly of dysentery in 1903 at age 54. In one posthumous tribute, Price was lamented as “a true high-priestess of nature.”
Price and the Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden Director Dr. William Trelease was among the well-known botanists with whom Price corresponded during her life. A scrapbook compiled by her sister, Mary, contains several letters from Trelease, including one asking for copies of Sadie Price’s publications and duplicate plant specimens.
After her death, Dr. Trelease kept in touch with Mary Price. Through this connection, Trelease acquired Sadie Price’s personal herbarium and plant artwork in 1904—almost 3,000 sheets including nearly 1,000 sketches. Price’s living plant collection was also sent to St. Louis and planted at the Garden.
The plant sketches and pressed plants were added to the Garden Herbarium. Price’s collection of bird and insect artwork was acquired by the Garden in 1908.
Price amassed a sizeable personal herbarium largely comprised of the flora of Warren County, Kentucky, and the surrounding area. She would often use these dried, pressed, and mounted plant specimens as a subject for her paintings.
Some of her artwork also included labels similar to those found on herbarium vouchers, and were treated as such by Garden staff and therefore added to the Garden Herbarium. Today, as they are rediscovered by researchers, the artwork is transferred from the Herbarium to the Garden Archives.
Price also discovered several new species and varieties of plants, five of which bear her name: an aster (Aster priceae), Price’s groundnut (Apios priceana), a dogwood (Cornus priceae), a wood sorrel (Oxalis priceae), and a violet (Viola priceana).
Price’s extensive work with ferns is also reflected in this dual collection. Of one particular specimen, Asplenium bradleyi, she wrote, “But the gem of all in point of interest, if not beauty, was the one specimen of Asplenium Bradleyi. Here in a crevice of the moist sandstone, shaded and protected from the wind, grew this rare Fern…” The exact plant she describes in that passage is now housed as a pressed specimen in the Garden Herbarium, and a pencil sketch of it in the Garden Archives.
Sadie Price wasn’t only interested in plants as the subject of her artwork. She also documented the insect life that depended on them. The collection includes dozens of pencil and watercolor sketches of butterflies, moths, caterpillars, and other insects.
On several of the sheets, Price also depicts or describes the plants that support the caterpillars or pupae. “The association of these native insects with the plants they rely on adds an important layer to this art,” says Chris Hartley, Entomologist at the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House. “It speaks to the ecology of the area where they live and shows that both must be present for either to survive.”
Birds were another of Ms. Price’s interests. She drew more than 150 birds, ranging from tiny hummingbirds to large egrets. The drawings were often made from specimens brought to her or from the collection of local taxidermists.
Her first publication on birds appeared in the American Naturalist in 1895, she also penned other articles and lists on the subject. In addition to her paintings of birds, Price also made several sheets of bird eggs. The depictions include owl, hawk, oriole, and thrush eggs.
Sadie Price is just one of many women gaining new attention for her scientific work. The Biodiversity Heritage Library’s #HerNaturalHistory campaign seeks to raise awareness of women in natural history.
Explore more botanical art at the Garden’s Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum. Botanical Art Worldwide: America’s Flora is on display through May 5, 2019.
Cassidy Moody — Senior Digital Media Specialist