Margaret Elizabeth Fountaine (1862–1940) traveled in Southern Africa in 1908 and 1909, collecting, studying, breeding and sketching butterflies. Between 1890 and 1940 she traveled to sixty countries on six continents. She died on a path on Mount St. Benedict in Trinidad; it is said she had a butterfly net in her hand. Whattaway to go! Doing what you love.
Sure, traveling in South Africa, Rhodesia and Mocambique in 1908 doesn’t really count as ‘exploring’ – she was taken places by train and coach and guided by locals, but she’s my first lady ‘explorer’ and . . . butterflies. Instead of blasting away at a big furry creature with a large blunderbuss, she would stand and watch a butterfly ‘flying rapidly from one plant to another on the hillside, evidently with a view to finding the proper food plant whereon to oviposite; so we stood quite still and watched her and it was not long before, having selected the sapling of a kind of Acacia (Brachstegia appendiculata) she paused, and apparently laid an egg and then flew right away out of sight. But there was her egg alright, a bright green Charaxes ovum.’
Around age 27 she suffered a humiliating love loss she never fully recovered from; At about the same time her uncle died and left her an inheritance that made her independently wealthy. Fountaine’s first annual share of her new fortune was spent on a cycling tour of France and Switzerland with her sister Rachel, using Cook’s Tourist Handbook. In Switzerland Fountaine rediscovered her childhood love of butterfly collecting.
Her first serious collection trip was to Syria and Palestine in 1901 where she hired a Syrian interpreter and guide, Khalil Neimy with whom she quickly formed a close personal bond who became her constant traveling companion. Neimy was a Greek Orthodox Syrian, born of Greek parents in Cairo in 1877; educated by American missionaries, he had lived in Wisconsin for four years. He subsequently became her constant and helpful companion – she called him ‘Bersa’ – despite it soon becoming apparent that he had a wife in Damascus. Thus started an affectionate relationship which would survive twenty seven years of turbulence, ending only with Khalil’s death aged fifty from fever in 1928.
Their first extensive trip was in 1903 to Asia Minor and they returned to Constantinople with just under 1000 butterflies. In old Natal in 1908 she mentions collecting in Durban, Eshowe (where she mentions collecting with Bersa, so he accompanied her to South Africa), PMB, Kimber’s Bush in the Dargle, Donnybrook, Jolivet, and Umzinto. In old Transvaal I only found mention of Barberton.
After the war Fountaine set off on her last extensive entomological journey with Khalil, in the Philippines. A full account was written up for The Entomologist and was referenced by conservation workers fifty years later. Fountaine, now in her mid-sixties, continued on to West and East Africa, Indo-China, Hong Kong, the Malay States, Brazil, the West Indies and finally Trinidad. Only putting the occasional note into The Entomologist, she focused on her watercolours and collecting. Khalil died in 1928 and Fountaine continued alone, surviving her lover and confiding in her diary that her only source of comfort was her caterpillars.
Biographies – In various ways most of the bumph written about Fountaine after her diaries were opened in 1978 has unjustifiably downplayed her valuable contribution to entomology and exaggerated her supposed ‘unconventional’ love life. Her real sins, one suspects, were: – Having a partner who was not an Englishman, or at least European; and – Having the means to travel independently and make all her own decisions.
Tony Irwin, Senior Curator of Natural History, announced the existence of the diaries found inside the tin trunk she left to be opened in 1978 and became the first to promote Fountaine’s romantic life above her entomological work. Irwin described Fountaine’s Lepidoptera collection as ‘not outstanding’ – read about it here and be amazed at his misrepresentation – and declared that ‘Margaret Fountaine, the intrepid lady lepidopterist, who traveled more widely than any other entomologist before or since, was a girl in love. Her passions crippled by Victorian morals, she sought refuge in the pursuit of butterflies and to this she devoted her whole adult life.’
W. F. Cater, an assistant editor of the Sunday Times, edited the diaries into two volumes for the popular market in 1980 and 1986, was even more unfairly and unjustifiably lurid – Lepidopterists, he said, classified her as a ‘useful collector, perhaps a great one, but not a great scientist’ without stating which lepidopterists these were! He goes on: ‘She was apparently in the same category as a collector of men.’ To justify his slur, he mentions that her diaries tell us these actual refutations of his characterisation, ‘for instance, that on an entomological trip to Sicily in 1896, at the age of 34, she refused to kiss the son of a hotel keeper, left a fellow traveler pleading outside her locked door, washed her neck, ears, cheeks and eyes after the unwelcome kisses of a professor and reclined in the arms of a butterfly hunter on a hillside without yielding her honor.’ Cater’s personal preference for tales of passion and travel, apparently led him to ignore most of Fountaine’s passages concerning her life’s passion and work collecting, breeding and displaying butterflies, and her scientific papers in the prestige journal Entomologist from 1897 to 1938! Cater would never have done this to a male figure; and probably would not have done it had Fountaine’s lifelong partner not been an ‘ethnic’, a Syrian, a ‘dragoman’ – i.e. not white.
A more recent biography by the travel writer Natascha Scott-Stokes results in a similar portrayal to that offered by Cater; she feels the need to refer to Fountaine as an ‘obscure lady amateur.’ Like Cater, Scott-Stokes is writing for a popular audience and in both cases Fountaine’s entomological achievements are undermined by the need to entertain. Both marginalize Fountaine’s scientific work in favour of their own prejudice and bent; Cater in favour of her romantic ventures; Scott-Stokes in favour of her globetrotting lifestyle.
Fountaine’s contemporary Norman Riley, wrote in 1940: ‘Her great passion, however, was collecting butterflies, an interest which she first developed about 1883, and which from then onwards led her every year further and further afield in search of material for her collection.’
Fountaine had the courage of an explorer, the passion of a collector, the eye of an artist, the patience of a researcher and the precision of a scientist. Her sketch books are filled with exquisite and informative watercolors and sketches of caterpillars, all meticulously labeled. In order to capture perfect specimens of butterflies, she would collect eggs and caterpillars and raise them herself, so as to avoid damaging the fragile insects with butterfly nets. Her collection which she named the Fountaine-Neimy Collection, giving due credit to her partner, numbered 23 270 butterflies and caterpillars in the end.
The last entry of her diaries was made on July 10, 1939. She packed the journals in a black box with a note stipulating that the box not be opened until April 15, 1978, exactly 100 years after the first entry was made. A letter to posterity she left with the diaries read, ‘To the reader – maybe yet unborn – I leave this record of the wild and fearless life of one who never “grew up” and who enjoyed greatly and suffered much.’ – ME Fountaine (more here)
The best place to get a good balanced perspective of Margaret Fountaine’s fascinating and full life is ‘A Lepidopterist Remembered’ by Sophie Waring, curator of modern collections at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. I have quoted extensively from her paper here, thus revealing my prejudice in favour of giving credit where it’s due!