Meet an amazing woman in STEAM via our Lifeology Historic STEAM Heroes course. This month, meet Anna Atkins.

STEAM Heroes - Florence Nightingale - nurses day

People in STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts, and math) are blazing trails—both people from history and in the world today. We want more people to know about these people and their excellent but often under-promoted work, including children (and adults!) who might dream of careers in STEAM fields!

Each month, we feature a new person from history in our Historic STEAM Heroes Lifeology card deck. These people often faced adversity and overcame obstacles to become the STEAM heroes that they are today! 

Is there someone from history that you would like to nominate? Help us curate examples of historic steam heroes from around the world—not just Western culture. You can nominate here

Keep reading to learn about the woman featured for the month of August!

Florence Nightingale

Anna Atkins is featured in our Historic STEAM Heroes course. 

Anna Atkins was a botanist and photographer. She is considered the first person to publish a book illustrated by photographs. For World Photography Day (August 19, 2022), join us in celebrating this Historic STEAM Hero.

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Anna Atkins

(March 16, 1799, United Kingdom to June 9, 1871, United Kingdom)

In the 19th century, science was dominated by men and most women were restricted from professionally studying it. However, botany was less restricted and actually encouraged as a hobby for women

Atkins had an interest in botany, especially botanical art and illustration. She began by drawing shells–256 of them! They were scientifically accurate and published in an English translation of a catalog titled Genera of Shells, which her father created. Atkins also created her own collection of preserved plants. Eventually, she became especially interested in ferns. She had a herbarium of over 1500 plants!

Although Atkins had seen success with her shell drawings, she had a lot more success to come through photography. Through her father, Atkins became friends with the person who invented the photographic process. When a new photographic process was invented, the cyanotype photographic process, Anna had the idea to use it to document her botanical specimens. Two examples of her work appear below.


cyanotype of a fern
By Anna Atkins - Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843), Public Domain,

Once Atkins used the new process and determined how detailed the photographs of her specimens were, she self-published a book full of these botanical photographs: Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. There are 20 known copies of the book, and she made every print herself! She is considered the first person to publish a book illustrated by photographs.

Fortunately for Atkins, her father was in the Royal Society, which afforded her opportunities that she would not likely have otherwise (such as the publication of her shell drawings). He helped her gain access to science. He was also said to have encouraged her to do anything, unlike many fathers back in that time that thought only sons could amount to greatness. He believed his daughter could do anything a son could do. 

Nonetheless, Anna’s contribution to the field of photography is still celebrated today. She merged the fields of art and science with her work drawing scientifically accurate shells, her preservation of plants and her cyanotype photography images. 

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