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Darwin Correspondence Project

Mary Elizabeth Barber


British-born naturalist, artist, and writer in South Africa. Sister of James Henry Bowker. Emigrated to South Africa with her family in 1820. Married Frederick William Barber, a chemist, in 1845. Studied birds, moths, reptiles, and plants, and corresponded with leading scientists, providing them with specimens and drawings. Published a number of scientific papers.

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Mary Elizabeth Barber (1818-1899) was a British naturalist, author, and artist. In 1820 her family emigrated to South Africa, where she grew up and became interested in natural history, especially botany. In 1838, she began corresponding with prominent British botanists like Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. In 1842, she married Frederick William Barber (1814-1892) with whom she had three children. Mary Barber was an accomplished artist, known for her drawings of flora and fauna, and a prolific author, known for her observations on plants, insects and South African culture as well as her poetry. Barber was introduced to Charles Darwin by Roland Trimen, a fellow British entomologist in South Africa in 1863. Barber exchanged letters and observations with Darwin and other gentlemen-naturalists in his scientific network. In 1867, while living on a farm near Grahamstown, Cape Colony, she replied to Darwin’sQueries on Expression with her observations on the expression of emotions in South African communities. In 1869 Darwin encouraged Barber to publish her observations about the fertilisation of a South African Salvia plant, which in 1870 she published in the Journal of the Linnean Society.In 1872, Darwin wrote to his good friend J. D. Hooker seeking Barber’s address and acknowledging that she had helped him with the Expression queries. On 29 October 1872 Hooker replied to Darwin with Barber’s address, noting that he also maintained a correspondence with Barber. Several years later in 1874, Hooker sent Darwin a copy of a letter Barber had written about protective coloration. Darwin responded to Hooker the next day saying that Barber should indeed publish her findings. In 1874, Darwin reported Barber’s scientific findings on a South African butterflyPapilio Nireus in a communication to the Transactions of the Entomological Society. Barber continued to publish and to send new species of South African plants to Kew Gardens while living in South Africa.

Additional Gender Resources:

Primary Sources:

Darwin Correspondence Database,

Darwin Correspondence Database,

Darwin Correspondence Database,

Darwin Correspondence Database,

Darwin Correspondence Database,

Darwin, Charles. “Report [on paper of Mary Elisabeth Barber] to the Linnean Society.” 10 May 1869.

Barber, Mary Elizabeth. “On the Fertilization of a Species of Salvia.” Proceedings of the Linnean Society (1871-1872): xxxi.

Barber, M. E., communicated by Charles Darwin. "XXV. Notes on the peculiar habits and changes which take place in the larva and pupa of Papilio Nireus." [Read 2nd November, 1874]. Trans. Ent. Soc. 1874 – Part IV (Dec.) (pp. 519-522) barber and entomological society&pg=PA519#v=onepage&q=barber&f=false

Secondary Sources:

Cohen, Alan. "Barber, Mary Elizabeth (1818-1899"Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2010 [, accessed 3 March 2013]

Harvey, Joyce and Marilyn Ogilvie, eds. "Barber, Mary Elizabeth (Bowker)" in The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century. Volume 1. (p. 78) barber and linnean society&pg=PA78#v=onepage&q=mary barber and linnean society&f=false