Mycology– the science and study of fungi is largely dominated by male researchers today. But this wasn’t always the case. Over the centuries, women have played an important role in shaping and advancing this burgeoning field of mushroom science to the great heights of where it is today.
A piece written in Radical Mycology titled “Mushroom HERstory" brilliantly details the historical impact of “How Women Shaped Mycology” today and many centuries ago.
Traditionally, the roles of men and women in the household were– when the men were out working or hunting for fresh game, it was often the women who carried the responsibility of collecting wild mushrooms and plants to help feed and heal their families. They were commonly known as “herb-wives”.
Over many generations of maintaining these skills, women procured the deepest knowledge and most comprehensive understanding of the workings of fungi.
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Women were the Original Mycologists
During the early period of the European Renaissance (14th - 17th century), when the practice of medicine had begun to change throughout Europe from its traditional roots to a more officially recognised profession. At the same time, the scientific library still allowed the addition of information gathered from women, including knowledge of fungi and its medical applications. But this was soon to change.
Under the new official “professional” system, changes of the state outlawed and prohibited many of the traditional medical practices that came from women knowledge-keepers and from that point, any woman (or man) who continued to practice such illegal medicine on their patients was banished or punished, in most cases by death.
This was the beginning of the “witch hunt” period, and women were often connected with mushrooms during this time as we hear in much of the folklore.
The Burning of the Witches
Both men and women were targeted during the witch hunts, but mostly women. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of women were slaughtered en masse during this time and maybe even more tragically, generations of cumulative mushroom wisdom that was passed on, also died, invaluable, undocumented knowledge lost forever.
In European folklore, mushrooms were painted as evil and associated with mischief and misfortune. They were often portrayed as companions of witches and their magic. The connection between women (witches) and mushrooms can be found in many ancient tales.
One story according to Eastern European legend, the fungus Tremella mesenterica, better known as “witch’s butter”, would appear on your gate or the entrance to your house when you had been put under a spell by a witch.
To rid yourself of the hex, one had to prick the mushroom with straight pins so the inner juices of the fruiting body would leak out and kill the fungus. After that it was believed, you could continue to live your life witch-free.
The Oppression that Leads to the Witch Hunts
Women’s knowledge of childbirth, medicine and the natural world enabled them to possess a degree of power, which was suppressed and seen as a threat to the emerging medical and professional institutions.
This power stacked with the folklore associated with mushrooms being “evil” and connected with witches and their “magic”, is suggested when the rise of the witch trials first began.
Historians propose that witch hysteria was catalysed by the wave of ergotism.
Ergotism is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which grows on grains–rye, wheat, and other cereal grains– and flourishes under damp conditions and in poor storage conditions.
These spoiled grains were consumed by humans and animals, and caused them to feel intense heat and lose blood flow to their extremities, causing them to rot off! The alkaloids produced by the fungus also caused hallucinations, vomiting, seizures, tingling and diarrhoea, all of which were thought to be witch associated hexes.
The psychedelic compound LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) was discovered in 1938 by Albert Hoffman, a Swiss chemist who was searching for a drug that could stimulate circulation at the time.
LSD was the twenty-fifth molecule that Hoffman had derived from the alkaloids produced by ergot. After ignoring the compound for five years, a premonition led Hoffman to resynthesize the compound and only after accidentally ingesting a small amount of the LSD, he discovered its powerful psychoactive properties.
Historians also suggest that such spells and “bewitching” thought to be from witches, was actually the cause of ergotism and the consumption of bad grains.
The most famous account of this may be the Salem witch trials of 1691. Nearly all of the accusers (reported witches) lived on the west side of Salem village, a wet and swampy area that would have been prime breeding ground for ergot.
With witch trials also occurring after wet and damp seasons across Europe, this evidence may help to explain the whole conspiracy.
Additionally, the poisoning of plants and cattle by fungi was often blamed on witches, and this mixed with the oppression of women during these times, see’s them claiming such power as an avenue of repression.
The Women with Power and Knowledge
Exploring the “witch” ideal even further, when dissecting its meaning, a witch is associated to be a woman of power and knowledge.
Because women had a vast and intimate knowledge of herbal gathering and natural remedies, they possessed a special and unique expertise, seemingly foreign, and not from the realm in which the witch trials occurred, an oppressive female society.
Furthermore, women also had roles and associations with goddesses, healers and spiritual leaders. As the rise of Christianity began, the role of women diminished and their knowledge was associated with Paganism and seen as dangerous and threatening to society.
The damning of mushrooms throughout Europe rivals in comparison to Chinese folklore, in which mushrooms were revered as life-promoting substances with beautifying, healing, and longevity promoting qualities.
How Women Shaped Modern Mycology
Men have only dominated the field of mycology for the past few centuries. Early modern mycologists Carolous Clusius (1526-1629) and Franciscus Van Sterbeeck (1630-1693) did not develop their understanding of fungi from personal experience.
Their research came from conversations they had with women in the marketplaces of Eastern and Central Europe. The knowledge they gathered from these women laid the foundation to their own rebranded works in their names.
A century after the witch hunts, women were still not allowed to enter any scientific fields, including mycology.
Beatrix Potter, children's author and fungi fanatic
Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), the well-known children’s author, most famous for her book The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), was also an avid scientist and lover of mushrooms. Potter created over 350 beautiful and accurate pictures of fungi, mosses, and spores, and many monographs that are still used today to help others with species identification.
Potter was not permitted to present her paper “On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricaceae” which was submitted to the Linnean Society because she was a woman. Instead, it was presented by a man. More recently, however, the paper has been credited to Potter and recognised for its historical significance.
Beatrix Potter's Fungi Monographs
Other accounts of women who did not receive recognition for their accomplishments in advancing mycology include the discovery of agar by Fanny Hesse in 1881. Agar is used as an important gelling agent in the lab.
At the time, Fanny and her husband Walter were working as lab assistants with the infamous “father of microbiology” Robert Koch. When Fanny suggested agar to Koch and found that it was a far superior gelling agent, Koch claimed the discovery for himself and used it to advance his own research as well as his career. No recognition was ever given to Fanny nor her husband Walter.
It wasn’t until recently that Fanny Hesse was given the credit she deserved for the significant contribution she made to the advancement of mycological studies over the last century.
Women Hold the Greatest Mushroom Wisdom
Women have always maintained a deep understanding and intimate connectedness with the fungi kingdom. For centuries, women enriched the innovation of mushrooms and herbal medicine in their role as herb-wives, and in applying their wisdom to communities, and to strengthen the health and well-being of their towns and villages They proudly incorporated these roles into their cultural identity.
Although women are still a minority in the mycological field, we always remember the early impact and important roles women played in advancing mycology.
And despite the gender-based barriers that still persist today, many women continue to be highly influential knowledge-keepers and transmitters for modern businesses and organisations based in the fields of science, environment, and fungi activism.
We will continue to support and encourage all genders to help continue the advancement of the mushroom revolution.
Written by Daniel Whitechurch and Eliza Hedley
Eliza is the millennial nutritionist– a health, mindset and abundance enthusiast obsessed with helping millennial's experience living at a higher level. Her relaxed new age approach and understanding of nutrition and wellness sees her empowering and coaching individuals to understand that their health is the ultimate asset. Upon experiencing first hand the power and place of tonic herbalism and medicinal mushrooms in everyday life, Eliza’s become an adaptogen fangirl and feels their utilisation in today’s world is essential for abundance and wellbeing.