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Women's History :: Women's History in the Collections: Mary Banning

Mary Banning
Mary Banning
The extraordinary nineteenth century paintings of mushrooms by Mary Elizabeth Banning are a blend of science and folk art, scientifically accurate and lovely to look at. They were presented to the New York State Museum by the artist in 1890 where they lay in obscurity for nearly a century. Since 1981 they have been the subject of the exhibit "Each a Glory Bright" and have been exhibited at museums around the country.

Mary Banning was an eccentric and talented mycologist (one who studies fungi) and natural history illustrator active in the second half of the nineteenth century. Born in 1822 to a prominent family on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Mary moved with her older sisters and widowed mother to Baltimore shortly before 1856. From that time on her proscribed task was to tend to ailing family members. The main outlet for her indomitable spirit was through the study and illustration of natural objects. She eventually focused on mushrooms because she found them the most challenging and mysterious. In 1868 she began to write and illustrate a book on the fungi of Maryland. This project took more than twenty years and resulted in a manuscript of scientific descriptions and amusing stories accompanied by 174 detailed, 13" by 15", watercolor paintings.

In 1868 there were no books from which to learn about American fungi. Miss Banning's consuming interest in this subject led her to the New York State Museum's Charles Peck, one of America's leading mycologists. Although they never met in person, Peck became Mary Banning's mentor in the identification of fungi through correspondence. Letters and paintings passed regularly in the mail until she became the leading mycologist in her region. Mary undoubtedly wanted acceptance in the fraternity of nineteenth century scientists, but as a woman, she did not have easy entry into formal education, nor was she taken seriously by most of the all male scientific establishment. It was the kindly and patient Peck who was her main supporter in her continuing mycological endeavors and it was to Peck that she finally dedicated and donated her illustrated manuscript. Among the fungi described in her manuscript are 23 species previously unknown to science and described and published in the "Botanical Gazette" or in Peck's "Annual Report of the New York State Botanist".

Painting by Mary Banning
Polyporus beattiei, ca. 1878
From the manuscript "Fungi of Maryland"

Miss Banning was a regular visitor to Baltimore parks and made periodic excursions through the Maryland and Southern Virginia countryside on expeditions to gather and draw fungi. She became well known to the other Baltimore naturalists and was a regular visitor to Baltimore's Peabody Library and Institute. Toward the end of her life, with her family and most of her money gone, she moved to a boarding house in Winchester, Virginia and donated the manuscript to The New York State Museum for safe keeping. By 1890, failing eyesight and rheumatism made it impossible for her to continue her work. She died, unmarried and alone, in 1903, unable to enjoy the comfort that nature once provided her. In 1994 Mary Banning was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.

Much of the beauty of the paintings is dependent on the vibrancy of the pigments and since they are damaged by sunlight, the paintings are in storage, in acid free materials, and away from light. Photographic copies have been made in order that we be able to enjoy them in the future.

Contributed by: John Haines, Associate Scientist

View Banning's Illustrations held in the New York State Museum Collections:

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