Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jeanne Baré – Botanist's Assistant

The first woman to circumnavigate the globe earned her keep as a botanist’s assistant–and managed to keep her gender a secret for a great part of the voyage.

Jeanne Baré (or Baret) was an orphan from the Burgundy region of France. She had no desire to become a prostitute, a profession many female orphans resorted to in order to support themselves. Instead, she disguised herself as a boy and hired out as a valet. When she learned in 1767 that the French government was sending an expedition around the world to collect rare plants, she approached Philibert Cammerson, the royal botanist, and signed on as his male assistant.

In Brazil, Baré followed Cammerson into the jungles where they found a plant which was named for the captain of the expedition and is known today as the bougainvillea. Although some members of the crew were suspicious that she was a woman, her cover wasn’t blown until they reached Tahiti. The natives immediately recognized her as female and were so taken with her that she had to flee back to the ship to escape their attention. She confessed to Captain Bougainville, who agreed to arrange a pardon for her from the French government.

Cammerson honored Baré by naming the plant genus which contains a species of plants with ambiguous sexual characteristics, Baretia, for her. Little is known about her after the voyage except that in 1785, the French government granted Baré, then known as Madame Dubernat and living in the French countryside, a pension, arranged by Capt. Bougainville, for her work as the botanist’s assistant on the expedition.

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