top of page

THE REAL DIRT ON: Mary Tyler Peabody Mann

By Carol Buckley.

As a daughter of 19th century Massachusetts, Mary Tyler Peabody Mann, born in 1806, was exposed to the Transcendentalist view of the importance of the plant world. She was educated at the school her mother, Eliza Palmer Peabody, ran from home, but a neighbor taught her botany and she preferred to learn sitting in a tree. Her father, Nathaniel, was a Harvard-trained physician and dentist who preferred writing health pamphlets and creating herbal remedies to practicing medicine. Thus, like their acquaintances the Alcotts (the family of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott), the Manns lived in genteel poverty but were generally cultured and well-educated. Mary’s older sister, Elizabeth, started the first English-language kindergarten in America, and with Mary later founded one of the first coed schools in Boston. Younger sister, Sophia, was an artist who married diplomat and novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mary married the pioneer of universal public education in America, Horace Mann, in 1842. Mary gave two influential gifts to the world of botany. The first was her book The Flower People: Being an Account of the Flowers by Themselves; Illustrated with Plates (1838), in which she brought the science of the plant world to children through the voices of flowers speaking to a young protagonist also named Mary. The botanical considerations she passed on to children are astounding to the modern reader, as can be seen in this excerpt, a dialogue with a crocus that is imaginative and detailed:

I always wear a cloth of gold, and am distinguished by that name. I am one of those plants whose duty is to cure the sick, and so botanists call me Officinalis. Those whose robes are white and purple, are a little different from me, for if you will observe my green leaves carefully, you will see they are narrower.

A commentator on the Peabody sisters, Patricia Ard, (Transcendentalism for Children, 2006) emphasizes the importance of Mary’s bringing botanical education to girls as well as boys through her book. As a teacher in Boston, Mary brought the classroom outside, holding history lessons in Boston Common, where she also discussed the flowers and trees.

Mary’s second contribution to botany was her second of three sons, Horace Mann Jr., who studied botany, first with Henry David Thoreau and then at Harvard with Asa Gray. Horace’s extensive herbarium, including specimens he collected in Hawaii, became the cornerstone of Cornell’s botanical collection.

Mary also left legacies in other areas of social concern, including an antislavery novel. Written based on her observations while a governess on a coffee plantation, Juanita: A Romance of Real Life in Cuba Fifty Years Ago was published just after her death in 1887.

bottom of page