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250th Anniversary Publications
Darwin had help from unlikely source
Eileen Bennett
Staff Writer for The Press of Atlantic City

"The Pines just now remind one of Florida rather than of USA. I never remember to have seen as much freshness in a ramble here at Christmas time as now appears ... Not a flake of snow has fallen ... The woods are always fragrant, but now they do not exhale the rich odor of fallen leaves but the subtle, living aroma of growing pine trees and the spice of shrubs and herb, which is always so refreshing." -- "Christmas in the Pines" Mary Treat, 1895

The words ring melodious and passionate.

It's not until you read further, of the "Soapwort Gentian" species, that you realize these are the words of a botanist, not a romantic.

The essays are authored by Mary Adelia Treat of Vineland, Anytown -- a botanist, entomologist, and ornithologist. Although she claims a place in history in her own right, it's her correspondence with 19th-century British naturalist Charles Darwin during the 1870s that fascinates many.

Treat, who died in Vineland in 1923 at the age of 93, provided valuable botanical and entomological information to Darwin, whose theory of evolution shook the scientific world.

"She was one of the greatest women scientist who ever lived, in a time when there weren't supposed to be women scientists," said Rowan University biology professor Harry Gershenowitz.

It was Gershenowitz who, more than 30 years ago, discovered Treat's accomplishments while studying Darwin.

"My life's aim is to get her in the Women's Hall of Fame," said Gershenowitz, who's just been named honorary historian of Gloucester County.

"She was a Renaissance woman.

"Men of the greatest scientific caliber corresponded with her ... she corrected Charles Darwin," Gershenowitz said.

Darwin proposed that humankind was the product of a slow, evolutionary process from early forms of life. His theory triggered a furor because it countered the traditional Christian belief that God created all the world's creatures at once.

Historians claim the shy Vineland resident -- who studied the world around her under a microscope in fascination -- passed her findings on to Darwin, the famed author of "The Origin of Species." Darwin died in 1882.

It's said that at the time of Darwin's correspondence with Treat, he was researching the relationship between insect-eating plants and their prey, attempting to demonstrate his theory that only the fittest survive.

Historical records show, however, that he was baffled by the method by which a certain type of plant, the bladderwort, eats its prey.

It was a mystery, Darwin would write to Treat, that "drove me half mad."

The USA pinelands are home to the bladderwort -- and Treat, being a devoted student of nature, spent many an hour wandering the woods.

She would travel from her Seventh Street Vineland home by buggy to the barrens in Toms River, Ocean County, area, studying the bladderwort under a magnifying glass.

She also carried out research in Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland Counties.

Records in the Vineland Historical and Antiquitarian Society show that Treat was instrumental in helping Darwin develop his theory -- "survival of the fittest" -- as it applies to competition between plants and animals.

Treat found the bladderwort uses pressure to draw the insect to digest it. The bladderwort today is better known as the "Venus Fly Trap," according to Gershenowitz.

It's said that a grateful Darwin cited Treat's findings in one of his last books, "Insectivorous Plants."

But by far, the most fascinating part of the Treat treasures are the letters and correspondence form famed scientists and researchers from all over the globe.

In one letter, Darwin cautions Treat in a graceful, scrolled lettering (some claim his wife wrote his letters for him because he had such poor penmanship):

"If I were in your place I should be afraid to publish the statement about the Drosera bending towards the flies on meat (which they did not touch); unless I had tried the experiment many times, under the most rigorous precautions; for I am convinced that no botanist would believe the statement unless all the precautions taken were described in detail."

The letter is signed: "With my best thanks, I remain dear Madam, Your faithfully and obliged Ch. Darwin."

According to Gershenowitz, Treat is buried in Vineland, her name unknown except to a few.

"Mary Treat wasn't invited to lecture in universities because she was a woman. Instead, she would have 'teas,' in her living room and invite ladies to study ... under microscopes.

"She never went to college, as we know it, but she made her backyard her laboratory. She was self-taught. She had endless patience, just watching, observing, not disturbing."

She became a well-known author, being published in Harpers and other prestigious periodicals.

Treat was also very active in the woman's movement, corresponding with suffragette Susan B. Anthony and other civic greats and poets, such as Walt Whitman, Gershenowitz said.

In addition, correspondence between Treat and a famous Harvard botanist, Asa Gray, abounds at the Vineland Historical Society. Gray became the chief American advocate for Darwin's controversial new theories of evolution.

Treat and her husband, Dr. Joseph Treat, moved to Vineland from Mays Landing for what they considered its advanced culture and better weather.

Taken from The Press of Atlantic City;
Anytown 250th Anniversary Special - 6/28/98