Not only a glass-ceiling-shattering explorer, but also a groundbreaking botanist.
Jeanne Baret sailed around the world as part of the first French circumnavigation of the globe, led by admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville from 1766 to 1769.
Her journey was not smooth sailing, however. Because the French Navy did not allow women on their ships, Baret bound her breasts with linen bandages and boarded the Étoile dressed as a man. Jeanne became “Jean” in a masquerade that planted her place in history.
Trained by her family in their identification and medicinal uses, she earned a reputation as an “herb woman,” . . . won her the attention of a young widowed nobleman and fellow botanist, Dr. Philibert Commerçon.
Commerçon scored the botanist position on the round-the-world French Naval expedition. Then they hatched a plan for getting Baret on board as his assistant.
Because of the aforementioned “no girls allowed” rule, the couple decided she would have to live and look like a young man during the years-long journey.
In 1764, they had a son who was placed in a foster home due to the circumstances of his birth. The boy only lived one year.
Over the course of seven years there, Baret had another baby that she gave up for adoption.
Philbert’s ill health, from a recurring ulcer on his leg, and his seasickness, meant Jeanne toted equipment, supplies and plant specimens wherever they landed and cataloged the plant collection.
In Rio de Janeiro, Jeanne found a beautiful flowering vine that Philbert named Bougainvillea. As they traveled, rumors about Jeanne’s gender surfaced, and in Tahiti in 1768, her disguise was revealed.
Her exposure marked the end of the journey for Baret and Commerçon.
In the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) Philbert discovered an old friend serving as Governor. Philbert and Jeanne stayed on as his guest, solving for Admiral Bougainville the problem of a woman on board.
As Philbert’s health deteriorated, Jeanne established herself independently. She was awarded property in Port Louis, Mauritius, where she ran a tavern.
Philbert died in 1773, and in 1774 Jeanne married Jean Dubernat, a noncommissioned officer in the French Army and the two returned to France completing her trip around the world. Jeanne was granted a pension from Admiral de Bougainville, who cited her exemplary service during the expedition.
It is 1775 and Baret was a different woman than the girl dressed as a boy who’d departed nearly a decade before. She had seen the world. She had broken boundaries, made discoveries, lost a lover, and found a husband.
Though Baret was met with no fanfare, the French government did award her a pension of 200 livres a year for her work gathering plant specimens, even remarking on record that she was an "extraordinary woman."
📍7/27/1740 – 8/5/1807
🌿 1766 expedition netted more than 70 plants, all named after the trip’s lead botanist, Commerçon. He had intended to name a beautiful Madagascar genus after his partner, but died before the paperwork was published.
🌿Biologist Eric Tepe to name a vegetable related to the tomato and potato after Baret: Solanum baretiae. “I have always admired explorers,” Tepe explained, “Especially botanical explorers. We know many of their names, and they all have endured hardships in pursuit of interesting plants, but few have sacrificed so much and endured so much as Baret.”
🌿Ridley writes that while the boat was docked at Rio—with (captain of the ship) Bougainville investigating the at-port murder of the Étoile’s chaplain, and Commerson handicapped by lingering leg infections after a dog bite—Baret scrambled into the jungle to scour for specimens. Here, her discovery of the dense and brightly-colored bougainvillea vine (likely plucked for the medicinal potential it would have held for Commerson’s gangrene) made history.
🌿Though Commerson originally christened the plant under a genus Baretia, the genus has since been reclassified.