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Atkins, Anna

scientific process father algae

née Children (1799–1871) British botanist: the first to use photography to illustrate scientific studies.

Anna was the only child of J G Children, a Fellow of the Royal Society whose wife had died shortly after Anna’s birth. Her father was a friend of the Herschel family and Anna knew from childhood. She had a close relationship with her father and shared his scientific interests. No doubt this position helped her acceptance in the male scientific circle. She was a skilled illustrator and provided over 200 drawings for her father’s translation of book The Genera of Shells , published in 1823. Anna married J P Atkins in 1825; there were no children and she continued her scientific interests and collaboration with her father. Children chaired the Royal Society meeting at which announced his ‘calotype’ photographic process, and father and daughter took up the process enthusiastically. In the same year she became an active member of the Botanical Society of London.

The calotype process was difficult (partly because Talbot’s information was inadequate), but in 1842 Herschel described his ‘cyanotype’ process. To illustrate her large collection of algae Anna Atkins turned to photography. As she explains in her preface ‘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 of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves.’ She made contact photograms of algae, totalling 389 pages of illustration and 14 of handwritten text, and making more than a dozen copies of the whole, which were sent to scientific friends and institutions. And so with her Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (3 vols, 1843–53) she became the first to apply photography to illustrate scientific studies, predating Talbot’s Pencil of Nature (1844–46), although the latter includes photographs made with a camera. Atkins’s work is both permanent and suited to its subject, with seaweeds shown as paler images on a rich blue background.

Atkins, Chet (originally Chester Burton) [next] [back] Atiyah, Sir Michael (Francis)

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