Mini: The Undercover Botanist

March 28, 2019

In 1767, a young French servant boarded a ship and sailed around the world, collecting plants previously unknown to Western science. The ship’s crew knew the servant as “Jean,” the scrappy aide to the expedition’s botanist. But “Jean” had a secret. She was actually Jeanne Baret, a woman disguised as a man—and she was about to make botanical history. 

Annie and Elah recently told this story for a live audience at On Air Fest. Here are some of the pictures from that talk.

There are, of course, no photos of Jeanne Baret, but we do have this portrait of her as imagined by an unknown artist a few years after her death. (Via Wikimedia Commons)


Philibert Commerson, the botanist on the expedition, Baret’s boss, and believed to be her lover as well. (By P. Pagnier via Wikimedia Commons)


A plant collected on Baret's expedition over 200 years ago! Many specimens from that expedition are still kept in plant libraries around the world. We don’t know which ones she collected herself herself—they’re all credited to Commerson—but we know she did a lot of his collecting. (The New York Botanical Garden)


Blossoming bougainvillea at The New York Botanical Garden. It’s the most famous plant collected on that 18th century expedition, and it’s named after the expedition leader, Louis Antoine de Bougainville. (Credit: Elah Feder)


Science’s “hidden figures” can be very hidden! This woman was the only person not identified in this photo from the 1971 International Conference on the Biology of Whales.

Thanks so much for all the retweets, everybody!

Here is a close-up of Mystery Woman, unfortunately mostly blocked from the camera.

The conference was in June (1971) in Virginia, with participants from 10 countries.

Why is *the only* woman listed as "not identified?" Arg! pic.twitter.com/eweEB1q9c9

— Candace Jean Andersen (@mycandacejean) March 9, 2018

After a massive Twitter campaign, the unnamed woman was identified as Sheila Minor, then an animal tech at the Smithsonian Museum.


Jeanne Baret finally has a plant named after her thanks to botanist Eric Tepe, who named a Solanum species after Baret in 2012. Behold Solanum baretiae! (Credit: Eric Tepe)



What’s known about the mysterious Jeanne Baret? Check out Glynis Ridley’s book, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, and John Dunmore’s Monsieur Baret.

Browse some of the plant specimens Jeanne Baret and Philibert Commerson collected on their journey, courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden. (Psst, lots more here!)

Read Eric Tepe and Glynis Ridley’s article naming Solanum baretiae.

Read about the crowdsourced campaign to identify “hidden figure” Sheila Minor.



Undiscovered is reported and produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata. Thanks as always to the staff at Science Friday and WNYC Studios, and a big thank you to On Air Fest and Jemma Brown for giving us the chance to tell this story.

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