How the Scientific Legacy of Inventor of the Aquarium Lies Lost on the Ocean Floor

by Carolyn Sotka


Jeanne Villepreux-Power one of the world’s first female biologists, by Anne-Lan, from WomenRockScience

Most people don’t know the history behind modern day aquariums, either for use in our homes or for spectacular display at places such as the Charleston and Monterey Bay Aquariums. This simple device – something we today wholly take for granted – as always having been there, was devised by one of the first-noted female marine biologists, Jeanne Villepreux-Power.

After moving to Sicily, Italy with her new husband in 1818, 22-year old Villepreux-Power abandoned her career as a seamstress to intensely study the natural history of her new home. Entirely self-taught with no formal education beyond reading and writing, she observed the flora and fauna of the island. She was most drawn to the life beneath the sea, and through her interest in marine mollusks, she created what is thought to be the first aquarium in 1832. It’s surely one of the greatest contributions to the study of marine biology.

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Image from Shirley Hibberd’s ‘The Book of the Aquarium and Water Cabinet’.

Villepreux-Power invented 3 types of aquariums to study mollusks and their fossils. She was most fascinated with Argonauta argo, the greater argonaut or paper nautilus. Her first aquarium was a glass model designed for indoors. Two others were submerged in the ocean, one made of glass, and the other a cage that could be anchored at a variety of depths. The submerged cage concept inspired a new generation of underwater study and has become the central tool for marine ecologists today.

The species of Argonaut that Villepreux-Power’s focused on is a pelagic octopus whose females develop a paper-thin egg case that coils in much the same the way a nautilus does.  At the time, no one knew whether the Argonaut produced its own shell, or used an abandoned shell the way hermit crabs do. Villepreux-Power’s research, published in 1839, showed how they reproduce and produce their own shells.


Villepreux-Power documented tool use in Octopus vulgaris, describing how octopi use stones to wedge open shells to get prey. She also contributed to the field of aquaculture with the idea that young fish, known as fingerlings, could be raised in cages until a suitable size to survive/avoid predators and be reintroduced to depleted rivers; basically the main concept behind today’s efforts restock to estuaries and rivers.

In 1843 tragedy struck when a storm sunk a cargo ship that was transporting nearly all of Villepreux-Power’s research, equipment, work and drawings. Some of Villepreux-Power’s work and correspondences were preserved, but mostly, twenty-five years of study lost. This is “the kind of romanticized disaster that rarely strikes scientists today, but perhaps [is] a reminder to do regular data backups,” Scales writes in her book, Spirals in Time. After the devastating loss of her research artifacts it is said that she continued writing but stopped conducting experimental science.


Spirals of time book cover

In a new book, Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashell, author Helen Scales recounts how Villepreux-Power “rolled up her sleeves and became a scientist” and was “way ahead of her time”.

Villepreux-Power was the only female (and first woman) member of Catania’s Academy of Natural Sciences at the time; a member of the London Zoological Society and sixteen other societies. Her Guida per la Sicilia was republished by the Historical Society of Messina.

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Jeanne Villepreux-Power. From WomenRockScience.

While her work may be buried deep on the ocean floor, her imprint on scientific discovery today lies in the sky. In 1997, not the be forgotten, her last name was given to a crater on Venus discovered by the Magellan probe.

See the Science News article on Villepreux-Power that introduced me to this fascinating scientist and WomenRockScience to see past and contemporary trailblazers. If you are interested in other women pioneers in ocean research, check out my Scuttlefish article, Dr. Julia Platt – Meet the Brilliant, Obstinate Heroine of Monterey Bay; one of the first American woman to receive a Ph.D in marine science. -CS

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