Margaret Fountaine, age 24, photograph (Wikimedia commons)

Margaret Fountaine, age 24, photograph (Wikimedia commons)

Margaret Fountaine

MAY 16, 2019

Scientist of the Day - Margaret Fountaine

Margaret Fountaine, a Victorian butterfly collector, was born May 16, 1862.  Born into a family of moderate means in Norfolk, England, she endured a stern mother and a useless father who died relatively young, then a 7-year infatuation with an Irish chorister who broke her heart, until an uncle died and left her with a decent income and freedom from her mother. With that, Margaret Fountaine grew wings and flew. She thought about a career as a painter (she was quite talented, as her sketchbooks show), and spent some years in Milan studying voice (apparently she was just as talented a singer), but what she really loved was travel. She made a number of trips to places like Corsica and Italy with a sister, before venturing out on her own.

Three days with the noted English lepidopterist Henry Elwes finally gave her a focus: she decided she would collect butterflies, and she spent the rest of her life in the quest of rare species around the world, amassing a vast and rich collection. Best of all, she began a diary on her 16th birthday and kept it faithfully until her death in 1940. The diary sets forth in unusual detail, for a Victorian and Edwardian memoir, the life of a strong-minded woman and inveterate free spirit, eager for adventure and disdainful of convention. She often travelled by bicycle (that liberator of women, which could go where no chaperone could follow). She visited over sixty countries in her collecting career, many of them with a male travelling companion, Khalil Neimy, who was a Syrian of Greek parentage, 15 years younger than Margaret, and married to boot, with whom Fountaine had a long relationship of an unusual nature that ended only with Neimy’s death of fever in 1928.

After Margaret died (while collecting butterflies in Jamaica at age 78), her sketchbooks were left to the Natural History Museum in London (second image), and her insect collections and a sealed metal box went to the Norwich Castle Museum in Norfolk, with instructions that the box remain sealed until 1978. The collection was put on display, and remains so today (third image).

When the box was opened, it was found to contain her 12-volume diary, which she had begun exactly 100 years earlier (fourth image). The diaries are not only informative but beautiful, carefully written, adorned with pasted-in images and pressed flowers and insects, and each April 15 (her special day), she included a new studio photograph portrait of herself. Two volumes of selections from Fountaine's diaries have been published, and a biography.

It would be nice if someone would make the complete diaries available in facsimile, printed or online, and we also hope someone publishes the 61 portraits, all in a row. Wouldn’t that make a compelling slide show?  We show here two of the few that are now available, Margaret at age 24 (first image), and Margaret at age 50 (fifth image). Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to