Rave Reviews by Jean E. Eustance                August 2021

Have you and your parents ever gone to an aquarium?  Have you seen fish and other sea creatures swimming around in big tanks? A woman named Jeanne Power invented some of the first big fish tanks, meant for scientific study, and she found out the secrets of a tiny octopus which makes its own shell.

Last month I looked at children’s books about the sea, featuring scientists from the 20th century.  Today I want to look at Secrets of the Sea, which is set in the 19th century. It is The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist. This picture book is found in the Juvenile Biography section in the Pine Bush Area Public Library.

Jeanne Villepreux-Power was born in France, and worked in Paris, and then got married and moved to Sicily with her husband. She liked the island of Sicily and started to study and draw all the land animals she saw. Then she wondered what the animals in the sea looked like. And more than that, what did the animals do? She worked and worked, and became a scientist when women were not expected to become scientists.

The book says, “Other naturalists studied the preserved bodies of dead sea creatures, but Jeanne wanted to study sea creatures as they lived. She wanted to meet them face-to-face. She wanted to see how they moved through the water, how they interacted with each other, how they grew and changed over time. She put her mind to work. Maybe a tank would do the trick, she thought. A large tank of clear glass, filled with salt water so animals could swim inside. That way, she could study sea creatures in her own home!”

She had to design and make the tank, herself, in 1832. It wasn’t just a fish bowl, it was an aquarium built for scientific study. An aquarium can be the large tank that the fish swim in. An aquarium, nowadays, can be the building that holds the big fish tanks, so people can come in and see them.

 In Sicily, Jeanne Power asked the local fishermen to save sea animals for her, and she put them in her aquariums. Eventually she became fascinated with a small octopus called the paper nautilus. She found eggs and raised them and watched while the little octopi developed their “shells” on their heads. They did not steal their shells from other animals. They grew them, themselves.  And these “shells” were really cases, to hold their eggs.

Jeanne Power had to push to get other scientists to pay attention. She had to repeat her experiments.  She had to tell people that she had invented those aquariums.

“Jeanne joined many scientific academies throughout her life, a rare feat for a woman in the nineteenth century. Her research was published in several languages, and she earned the respect of her peers. This respect wasn’t just for her discovery that the paper nautilus creates its shell. With her aquariums, Jeanne paved the way for the study of living sea creatures. She brought humans and the sea closer together than ever before.”

So, if you go to an aquarium this summer, say “thank you” to Jeanne Power.

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