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A chart showing catagories of animals with drawings of many of those animals.
A General View of the Animal Kingdom from Zoölogical science, or, Nature in living forms ... : adapted to elucidate the chart of the animal kingdom by Anna Maria Redfield, 1858

A.M. Redfield: Uncovering a Female Scientist Who Turned Animal Classification into Art

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This post is by Kelsey Beeghly, the 2023-2024 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

For centuries, scientists have used artistic methods to visually represent the connectedness of living things. These early visual representations were based on naturalists’ observations of physical characteristics, prior to the discovery of DNA. Analyzing an artistic tree of life from the 1850s can provide insight into 19th century classifications of organisms, before such relationships were explained through the theory of evolution. Students can consider how animal taxonomy (classification) foreshadowed evolutionary relationships and is constantly evolving. They may also reflect on why they likely haven’t heard of its creator, a talented scientist and artist.

Nineteenth century naturalist A.M. Redfield created “A General View of the Animal Kingdom,” in 1857. Teachers should note that both this image and the text in Redfield’s book, in addition to showing classification among animals, reflect theories of racial differentiation among humans that are now recognized as having no biological foundation and as perpetuating historically racist beliefs of white European superiority.

Show students the image and ask what they notice about the shape of the figure. The placement of animals? The organization of animals from the left side of the figure to the right? What questions does the image prompt?

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which scientifically explained similarities and differences among life forms through evolution, was published in 1859, two years after this tree. The purpose of Redfield’s tree was to show classification, not evolution. However, considering what we now know about evolution, what evolutionary relationships can be identified in the tree? Encourage students to visualize, and perhaps redesign, what this tree might look like today, based on our current understanding of phylogeny, or patterns of shared ancestry.

Chart showing examples of Vertebrates, Articulates, Mollusks and Radiates
Image from Zoölogical science, or, Nature in living forms … : adapted to elucidate the chart of the animal kingdom. A.M. Redfield, 1858

Redfield’s classification system divides the animal kingdom into four subkingdoms. This level of classification below kingdom is called a phylum (phyla, plural). Show students this image of representative organisms from each phylum. Invite students to consider what the unifying characteristics are among each group. Researching the origins of the phyla name might give clues, and additional research can inform which of these taxonomic ranks are still accepted, and which major animal phyla are missing.

Students may be surprised to learn that A.M. Redfield was a female naturalist from Syracuse, New York, Ann Maria Redfield (1800-1888). History of Onondaga County describes how she was part of a local “Society for Mutual Instruction,” formed in 1844. The society had both male and female members who met weekly, taking turns presenting on a specific branch of science. Most professional scientific societies of the 19th century were not welcoming to women or non-white scientists, either excluding them entirely or from many member benefits.

There was no shortage of female scientists, like Ann Maria Redfield, in America throughout the 19th century. Due to societal prejudices against women, few are widely known today. In Daughters of America; Women of the Century, published in 1882, students can read about Redfield and other female American scientists. The book notes,

It is time to stop sneering, and to show a due respect to scientific and literary attainment, regardless of color, clime, or sex, acknowledging the kindred fact that scientists are cosmopolitan, and that with them knowledge is renown as well as power.

Ask students to reflect on the effects of excluding groups of people from science as well as minimizing their contributions. Which women scientists would your students research to learn more about?

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