When Charles Darwin needed help finishing his 20th book, the legendary English evolutionist turned to an amateur woman naturalist from Vineland named Mary Treat.
Citing her careful observations several times, he published “Insectivorous Plants” in 1875, and it sold better and faster than his landmark work, “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.”
“Mrs. Treat, of New Jersey, has been more successful than any other observer,” he said in a section of the book that described how the bladderwort plant catches its prey.
Treat was a pioneer in several areas of natural sciences. She wrote several books, published about 100 articles, discovered a few species of insects and plants and described many others better than anyone before.
“Although neglected heretofore by natural history biographers Mrs. Treat deserves a place in the history of New Jersey’s natural history as its first capable woman naturalist,” wrote historian and scientist Harry B. Weiss in a 1955 article on Treat’s life in the New Jersey Historical Society magazine.
Treat was born in upstate New York in 1830, then married and moved to Vineland in 1868, only a few years after Charles Landis established the town.
She died in 1923 at age 93, and was buried in Siloam Cemetery in Vineland, where her gravestone is still clearly legible.
Before her passing, she left much of her correspondence and writings with the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society. On a recent afternoon, curator Patricia Martinelli laid out the several manila envelopes filled with documents that give a glimpse into Treat’s life.
“Someone needs to write a book about her,” she said.
Treat and her husband, Joseph, lived in various homes in Vineland, including on Sixth Street, Plum Street and Landis Avenue. After Joseph Treat died around 1878, Mary Treat moved to Park Avenue, where she had her own insect menagerie.
In her backyard, in short trips to the pinelands and when vacationing during winters in Florida, she found enough material to publish extensively as a botanist, entomologist and ornithologist.
“A contemplation of Nature, her ways and works, large or small, far or near, in the heavens or on the earth, becomes a source of perennial pleasure, and a true lover of her gracious and unbounded revelations need not travel far in search of them,” she wrote in “Home Studies in Nature,” her most popular book, published in 1885.
Treat was a slight woman, about five feet tall and 110 pounds, and she was equally modest.
In 1913, the Public Ledger daily newspaper in Philadelphia published a profile of Treat, calling her the “World’s Most Famous and Industrious Woman Naturalist,” while also stating that few people in Vineland were aware of her renown.
Treat’s impact is still evident today in the Latin names of species she discovered. In 1886, a species of ant was named Aphaenogaster treatae in her honor. A variety of zephyr lily was also named after her.
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