First Woman to Circle the Globe Honored at Last

world map – Friday, 06 January 2012 (originally published 03 Jan)

Nearly 250 years after Jeanne Baret became the first woman to circumnavigate the planet, scientists have named a new plant species in her honor. A French botanist who disguised herself as a man to join Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s journey around the world, she helped classify hundreds of species—including, some believe, the beloved and ubiquitous bougainvillea.

Born in 1740 in France’s Loire Valley, Jeanne Baret overcame her poverty-stricken childhood to circumnavigate the globe before any other woman in recorded history and play a key role in identifying hundreds of plant species. In the early 1760s she became the lover and assistant of the well-known botanist Philibert Commerson, possibly using her familiarity with medicinal plants to contribute to his research. A few years later, the celebrated explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville invited Commerson to join a team of experts who would sail around the world in a grand show of France’s scientific preeminence.

Who would help Commerson with his fieldwork during the long journey? While Baret was the obvious choice, a royal ordinance in force at the time forbade women from traveling on French Navy vessels. To get around the problem, the couple hatched an elaborate plot in which Baret dressed as a man and showed up on the dock to offer her services—introducing herself as “Jean”—just before Bougainville’s ship, the Etoile, set sail in December 1766. As the expedition made its way toward South America, Baret spent much of her time evading the crew and caring for the sickly Commerson. Arriving in Uruguay in February 1767, the pair began setting out on botanizing missions, amassing more than 6,000 specimens in two years . . .

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