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Unturned Leaves Early Women in Botanical Illustration

Mary Elizabeth Banning

In some ways, the cases of Lewis and Price recall the story of another remarkable woman who also toiled tirelessly to advance what we know about fungi, only this time on this side of the Atlantic. Mary Elizabeth Banning, born sometime in the 1820s in Talbot County, Maryland, received no formal training, but her family's moderate means allowed a basic level of childhood homeschooling that included some (clearly inspiring) nature study, possibly along with some Latin.

As an adult, Banning became the sole breadwinner for her mother and half-sister and experienced a steady impoverishment of means over the course of her life, but these difficulties did not keep her from years of intrepid fieldwork hunting mushrooms across the state of Maryland, taking whatever form of public transportation available to her. Banning's passion prompted her to strike up a thirty-year correspondence with the mycologist Charles Horton Peck at New York State Museum of Natural History, to whom she sent many of her specimens and with whom she identified a number of fungal taxa. (Banning also identified 5 new species entirely on her own; and Peck wisely named one of the specimens that Banning had provided to him after the collector herself, Hypomyces banningiae). Convinced of the value of nature study for children's education, Banning worked long and hard on an illustrated study of Maryland's mushrooms, which she finished but was not able to publish before she died in 1903, in ill-health and living in a worn boarding house in Baltimore.

Mann Library does not hold any of Banning's work, however thanks to her connection with Peck both a wonderful collection of her illustrations and the correspondence that detailed the story of her work were saved at the New York State Museum, where, ninety years later, their discovery led to some well-deserved public recognition at last and the honor of being named to the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.

Images taken from this site, which is an archived page formerly hosted by the New York State Museum. We cannot guarantee the status of that page, and suggest any further research on Mary Banning start with the link in the above text.