Algologies: Mary Philadephia Merrifield – A Brighton Algologist

Mary Philadelphia Merrifield (1804 – 1889) was a famous Brighton resident who lived at 2 Dorset Gardens. She was pioneer in multiple fields in a victorian male-dominated world. Merrifield was a specialist in Old Master Painting and colour pigments as well as a fashion historian. She wrote Dress as a Fine Art in 1854, and in 1864 wrote A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton and its Vicinity and writing chapter IV “Algae” changed her life and started an obsession. She subsequently became an expert in seaweed and had published in many scientific journals including the Annals of Botany and Journal of Linnaen Society as writing frequently for Nature.

Mary Philadelphia Merrifield

Seaweed collecting was a popular hobby for Victorian women in Britain, including Queen Victoria herself. It was a field that women were allowed to study unlike many others. Phycologist Sarah Stewart told me she believed this was because the sexual reproduction of seaweed was so poorly understood and this led it to be acceptable.

Merrifield collected seaweed voraciously and these collections are now held in the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton and the Natural History Museum in London. Unfortunately the Booth Museum is currently closed following the pandemic lockdown so I cannot visit for now. But I plan to do so as soon as possible.

A modern Brighton seaweed collector at work (me)

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