For Mothers’ Day, a note on a woman of science, Anna Children Atkins (March 16, 1799-June 9, 1871), who is a little-known but fascinating figure on the border between art and science. She was the daughter of John George Children, a botanist and chemist (who in 1813 hosted a dinner and demonstration of his huge voltaic battery for thirty-eight of Britain’s leading chemists, including W.H. Wollaston and Humphry Davy). Anna had been given a scientific education by her father, which was most unusual in those days. As a young woman, she produced 250 detailed engravings to illustrate her father’s translation of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s classic work Genera of Shells.
In 1825 Anna married John Pelly Atkins and moved to Kent, where she began to collect dried plant specimens later donated to the Botanical Gardens at Kew. She was made a member of the Botanical Society of London–one of the first scientific organizations to admit women as full members–in 1839.
John Children was a friend of both William Henry Fox Talbot and John Herschel, and chaired the Royal Society meeting in February 1839 at which Talbot discussed his new process of “photogenic drawing” (which Herschel would later rename “photography”). In 1841 Children told Talbot that he had ordered a camera for his daughter.
During the summer of 1843, Anna Atkins began to work on a book about algae, using the cyanotype method of photography, which had been invented by Herschel. In the preface of that work Atkins explained that “the difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confervae, has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process.” Herschel himself had probably taught here the method, which survived into the 20th century as the basis of the architect’s blueprint. By washing paper with a solution of ferric ammonium citrate, an iron salt, Herschel created photographic paper higly sensitive to the action of the light. After 30 minutes or one hour of exposure to sunlight, followed by a wash in a solution of yellow potassium ferrocynate, a white image would appear on a bright blue background.
Anna made a series of original cyanotype plates that were contact prints, made by placing specimens of algae that had been washed, arranged, and dried on top of a sheet of prepared paper, and set in the sun; the exposed sheet was then washed, dried and flattened. The resulting book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, consisted of 389 captioned plates, and fourteen pages of titles and text. At least a dozen copies of the book were made and distributed to interested men of science, including Talbot and Herschel (Herschel’s copy is now at the New York Public Library).
This means that Anna prepared thousands of sheets of cyanotype paper by hand (her father’s giant battery could have been used to produce the ferric ammonium citrate and the potassium ferrocyanide required for the process). She also collected and painstakingly prepared each of the specimens of algae. This monumental accomplishment took ten years to accomplish. It was the first time photography had been deployed publicly in a scientific field. Indeed, it was the first published book to use photography. The choice to use Herschel’s cyanotype method was particularly apt, as Anna must have realized. The cyanotype process produced a deep blue color wonderfully appropriate to showcase the algae, which appear to be floating ethereally in a cerulean sea.