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History's Hidden Figures: Meet the 19th Century French Dressmaker Who Invented the Aquarium

Jeanne Villepreux-Power began her adult life as a dressmaker, but rose to become one of the preeminent marine biologists of her day.

If you've ever been captivated by colorful fish and sea creatures darting around an aquarium, you can thank 19th century French scientist Jeanne Villepreux-Power! Villepreux-Power began her adult life as a dressmaker, but rose to become one of the preeminent marine biologists of her day. Her invention of a glass box for holding and observing marine specimens — the first recognizable glass aquarium — earned her the title "Mother of Aquariophily" from British biologist Richard Owen. "[She] was not content with purely descriptive studies of dead specimens," French scientist Claude Arnal wrote in a tribute to her. "She was excited by life and its mysteries."

The eldest daughter of a shoemaker and a seamstress, Jeanne Villepreux was born on September 24, 1794 in the small village of Juillac in southern France. The bold young woman woman had big ambitions, however, so in her late teens she walked the 400 miles to Paris to become a dressmaker. In Paris, Villepreux-Power became known for her exquisitely detailed work, and in 1816, she gained national prominence after she made an elaborate wedding dress for the Italian Princess Caroline's marriage to Charles-Ferdinand de Bourbon.

The commission brought her into a world of wealth and power where she met and married English merchant James Power. In 1818, the couple moved to Messina, a harbor city in Sicily, Italy, where Villepreux-Power found herself with unexpected freedom. "She no longer sewed or embroidered dresses for a living, and she didn’t continue with such genteel pursuits to keep herself busy," says Helen Scales, author of Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells. "Instead, she rolled up her sleeves and became a scientist."

For nearly 25 years, Villepreux-Power devoted herself to studying the flora and fauna of the region, in particular the creatures of the water. She was one of the first people ever to explore aquaculture as a way to protect and rehabilitate populations of fish and other marine life. Scales observes that Villepreux-Power was "way ahead of her time... she came up with the idea of restocking overfished rivers with fish and crayfish." She was also the first person to document how certain species of octopus could use tools to wedge open the shells of their prey, a revolutionary discovery at the time.

Villepreux-Power was especially fascinated by the otherworldly Argonauta argo or paper nautilus and began an intensive study of the unusual octopus in 1932. Scientists disagreed about whether they grew their own shells or took shells from other creatures, like hermit crabs did. Villepreux-Power was determined to find the answer — but to do it, she'd have to observe a maturing nautilus over a long period of time. Her solution was a glass box in which you could put sea water and any creatures you wanted to study; thus, she invented the first recognizable glass aquarium. She also developed two more variants of her aquarium: a submersible glass box in a cage for shallow water observation and a larger cage for bigger molluscs that she could anchor at different depths at sea. Through her studies of the larval nautilus in the controlled environment of her aquarium, Villepreux-Power made the groundbreaking and, at the time, controversial discovery that they grew their own shells.

Professor Carmelo Maravigna, wrote in the Giornale Letterario Della Accademia Gioenia di Catania in 1834, that Villepreux-Power should be credited with the invention of the aquarium and its first systematic use to study marine life. In 1839, Villepreux-Power published “Physical Observations and Experiments on Several Marine and Terrestrial Animals”, her major work discussing the nautilus and other sea creatures she had studied. Increasingly renowned for her pioneering research, Villepreux-Power became the first female member of the Accademia Gioenia di Catania and a correspondent member of the London Zoological Society and over a dozen other scientific societies in Europe.

Sadly, tragedy struck when she and her husband moved from Sicily to England in 1843: the ship carrying her papers, including many of her scientific drawings and writings, sank. Although she continued to write and gave public talks about her discoveries, Villepreux-Power never conducted research again before her death in 1871.

Villepreux-Power's  name name and scientific contributions were largely forgotten for over a century. Fortunately, in recent years, her research and her invention of the first aquarium have gain greater recognition; in 1997, a crater on Venus discovered by the Magellan probe was named in her honor. With her name now appearing in more books, including the picture book Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist, a new generation will hopefully better appreciate the woman whose simple yet revolutionary invention has given us all a better understanding and appreciation of the hidden world under the sea.

Mighty Girl Books and toys About Marine Biologists

Life in the Ocean

The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle

Life in the Ocean

The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle

Written by: Claire A. Nivola
Illustrated by: Claire A. Nivola
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

As a young girl swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, Sylvia Earle developed a passion for the sea and the life within it. As an adult, she would design new submersibles, swim with the whales, and do deep-water walks in special dive suits. Throughout, Earle has explored one of the most mysterious places still left on Earth: our vast oceans. And as Time Magazine's first Hero for the Planet — who is affectionately referred to as the Sturgeon General by colleagues — she is one of the most passionate voices for protecting what she calls "the blue heart of the planet." This exquisite picture book biography will fascinate young readers and spark their interest in learning more about Earle and the ocean she strives to protect.

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Amazon.ca
C$15.18 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£11.06 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$30.99 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£12.26 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$32.86 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$11.26 (USD)

The Magic School Bus on the Ocean Floor

The Magic School Bus on the Ocean Floor

Written by: Joanna Cole
Illustrated by: Bruce Degen
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

With a heat wave in full swing, the kids of Ms. Frizzle's classroom are excited when she says they're going to take a field trip to the ocean — a beach day sounds perfect! But when Ms. Frizzle says the ocean, she means the ocean, and she drives the Magic School Bus straight into the water! With a well-meaning lifeguard who tried to "rescue" them in tow, the kids will now learn all about the ocean floor: everything from the creatures that live there to the hot water vents and coral reefs that make up its landscape. Re-released in honor of the 20th anniversary of the ten original Magic School Bus titles, and featuring updated scientific information, this watery adventure from the best-selling science series ever is sure to inspire kids to wonder what lives beneath the waves!

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C$7.91 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£12.09 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$13.73 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£5.77 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$15.73 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$6.99 (USD)

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean's Most Fearless Scientist

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean's Most Fearless Scientist

Written by: Jess Keating
Illustrated by: Marta Alvarez Miguens
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

From the moment she saw a shark at the New York Aquarium, Eugenie Clark was fascinated, but the rest of the world thought that sharks were mindless eating machines — and that girls couldn't be scientists. Clark devoted her life to learning about sharks, and proved that sharks weren't as dangerous as people feared. She even proved they could learn! She also built public support for the protection of her beloved sharks and the ocean in which they lived. This picture book biography of the "Shark Lady" is a celebration of a daring woman who changed the way the world saw one of the ocean's most famous inhabitants. For another picture book about Clark, check out Swimming With Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark for ages 5 to 8.

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Amazon.ca
C$24.54 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£11.63 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$35.48 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£10.64 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$30.85 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$15.99 (USD)

Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist

Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist

Written by: Evan Griffith
Illustrated by: Joanie Stone
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

In 1818, Jeanne Power was a former dressmaker who became a self-taught naturalist after moving from Paris to Sicily. She was fascinated by the life forms in the ocean — but while it was easy to study animals on land, how could she study the ones in the sea? Power built a glass box — an aquarium — that she could use to examine aquatic creatures, and she made groundbreaking discoveries doing so! And even when men tried to take credit for her work, she argued her case and made sure she got her due. This vibrant picture book biography celebrates a little known pioneer of science whose legacy lives on in every aquarium found in homes, research facilities, and zoos around the world.

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Amazon.ca
C$23.18 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£10.19 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$28.89 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£10.70 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$36.90 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$8.99 (USD)

Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean's Biggest Secret

Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean's Biggest Secret

Written by: Jess Keating
Illustrated by: Katie Hickey
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Marie Tharp loved science, but in the mid-20th century when she joined the lab at Cambridge University in New York, she wasn't allowed to go on research boats: everyone knew that women at sea were bad luck. Instead, Tharp dove into the information that her colleagues brought back and started drawing a map of the ocean floor. Slowly, her map grew, revealing something even bigger than the Atlantic: a ridge, right down the middle of the ocean! That ridge not only changed what people thought about the ocean floor, but it also proved the new theory of plate tectonics, changing our understanding of how the planet changes over time. This exuberant picture book biography by the author of Shark Lady is a tribute to perseverance and the power of thinking differently!

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C$21.77 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£10.79 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$29.56 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£11.81 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$35.76 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$14.89 (USD)

The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk

The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk

Written by: Sy Montgomery
Illustrated by: Keith Ellenbogen
Recommended Age: 9 and up

Jennifer Mather is fascinated by one of the strangest animals on Earth: the octopus. Octopi have seemingly incredible powers: they can shape-shift, squirt ink, camouflage, and climb into almost any crevice. But they're also astoundingly smart and sensitive — and their behavior and condition could tell us a lot about the health of the wider ocean around them. This book from the Scientists in the Field series follows Mather and her team as they study octopi on the island of Moorea, combining biology, oceanography, and psychology to better understand these mysterious and intelligent creatures. For another book from this series for budding marine biologists, check out Sea Turtle Scientist.

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Amazon.ca
C$26.72 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£14.16 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$38.07 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£14.16 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$38.68 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$14.39 (USD)

Marine Science for Kids: Exploring and Protecting Our Watery World

Marine Science for Kids: Exploring and Protecting Our Watery World

Recommended Age: 9 and up

Under the surface of the waves, there's a whole world to explore! In this colorful, photo-filled guide to aquatic habitats, you'll learn all about marine science from real scientists! You'll learn how geology, chemistry, and biology all come into play, and meet amazing creature from sharks and dolphins to seabirds, to squids and octopuses, and many more. Then, try out some of the hands-on activities like making an edible coral reef or testing methods of cleaning up after an oil spill to imagine yourself as a marine scientist!

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Amazon.ca
C$25.73 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£13.28 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$32.66 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£13.28 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$36.27 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$16.69 (USD)

Women in Science

50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Women in Science

50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Written by: Rachel Ignotofsky
Recommended Age: 9 and up

This charmingly illustrated and educational book highlights the contributions of fifty notable women to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from the ancient to the modern world. Full of striking, singular art, this fascinating collection profiles well-known figures like primatologist Jane Goodall, as well as lesser-known pioneers such as Katherine Johnson, the African-American physicist and mathematician who calculated the trajectory of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Women in Science celebrates the achievements of the intrepid women who have paved the way for the next generation of female engineers, biologists, mathematicians, doctors, astronauts, physicists, and more!

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Amazon.ca
C$22.76 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£9.24 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$23.09 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£11.48 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$31.70 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$9.99 (USD)

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World

Written by: Rachel Swaby
Recommended Age: 13 and up

Learn the often neglected stories of women in science with these 52 engaging capsule biographies! Spanning centuries of courageous thinkers, author Rachel Swaby celebrates women whose specializations range from biology to physics to engineering, from famous names like Sally Ride and Ada Lovelace to lesser-known women like Stephanie Kwolek and Chien-Shiung Wu. While each individual's biography runs for only a few pages, Swaby has done an impressive job of conveying the essence of each scientist's life and work into the profiles, while her light tone urges readers to learn more about each of these groundbreaking women.

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Amazon.ca
C$22.77 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£9.45 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$26.01 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£11.13 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$28.98 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$14.21 (USD)

The Lady and the Sharks

The Lady and the Sharks

Written by: Eugenie Clark
Recommended Age: 14 and up

In her own words, Eugenie Clark tells the world about her groundbreaking research that not only established that women belonged in science, but also changed the way we looked at one of the most feared animals of the ocean. In this updated fourth edition of her book, Clark describes the creation of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, where she did some of her most famous work — and which is now a national center for shark and marine mammal research. Full of fascinating behind the scenes story about the lab and Clark's incredible life, this book celebrates the joy of exploration and discovery in the Earth's mysterious oceans.

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Amazon.ca
C$24.50 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£17.63 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$47.71 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£18.52 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$46.73 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$19.95 (USD)

Ocean Life Toob

Ocean Life Toob

Manufacturer: Safari
Recommended Age: 3 - 7

Discover a world of fascinating award winning miniature collectibles with the Ocean Life Toob from Safari! Each toob includes figures of a sea lion, an eagle ray, a starfish, a turtle, a penguin, an octopus, a humpback whale, a sperm whale, a hammerhead shark, a tiger shark, and a dolphin, as well as a posable moray eel figurine. Each figure is carefully sculpted and painted, perfect for dioramas, pretend play, or anyone who dreams of studying life under the sea! For large ocean animals for pretend play, check out the Jumbo Ocean Animals Set.

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Amazon.ca
(Unavailable)
Amazon.co.uk
£13.80 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$87.50 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$14.99 (USD)

Ocean Life Search & Find 64-Piece Puzzle

Ocean Life Search & Find 64-Piece Puzzle

Manufacturer: Mudpuppy
Recommended Age: 4 - 9

Explore an underwater world with this search and find puzzle from Mudpuppy! This 64-piece puzzle features a vibrant image of underwater creatures — and it's friendly to those creatures, too, since it's made using recycled materials and non-toxic inks. Once kids have assembled it, they can have even more fun hunting for all of the animals featured in the images on the border! This compact 23" by 15.5" puzzle is perfect for a small table, so kids can have hours of search and find fun. For two more search and find puzzles from Mudpuppy, check out the Woodland Forest Search and Find Puzzle and the Dinosaur Search and Find Puzzle.

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Amazon.ca
(Unavailable)
Amazon.co.uk
(Unavailable)
Amazon.com.au
A$29.95 (AUD)
The Book Depository
(Unavailable)
The Book Depository
(Unavailable)
Amazon.com
$14.40 (USD)

Ocean Bingo

Ocean Bingo

Manufacturer: Laurence King Publishing
Recommended Age: 5 and up

There are so many wonders to discover in the ocean! With Ocean Bingo from Laurence King Publishing, you'll try to fill your bingo card with some of the ocean's amazing creatures, from penguins to orcas to the bioluminescent octopus. Each of the 64 animals are elegantly illustrated int his set, creating an appealing and beautiful way to play. Plus, kids will be fascinated by the fun facts about each species included in the guide.

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Amazon.ca
C$40.22 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£15.84 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$30.04 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$21.95 (USD)

Women in Science - Sylvia Earle Poster

Women in Science - Sylvia Earle Poster

Manufacturer: Rachel Ignotofsky
Recommended Age: All Ages

Pay tribute to the Sturgeon General Sylvia Earle: marine biologist, explorer, and aquanaut. She was a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. In the JIM suit she made the deepest solo dive in 1979 and still holds the women’s depth record. Now she fights to create a protected ocean to stop pollution and overfishing with Mission Blue. This poster from the Women in Science series by artist Rachel Ignotofsky is available in 8X10, 11X14, and 16X20 inch sizes.

Price: $22.00
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Etsy
$22.00 (USD)
Etsy
$22.00 (USD)
Etsy
$22.00 (USD)
Etsy
$22.00 (USD)

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