Author: Ibon Cancio, UPV/EHU Associated Professor in Cell Biology; researcher in the ‘Cell Biology & Environmental Toxicology’ (CBET) research group of the Plentzia Marine Station (PiE-UPV/EHU); Spanish scientific representative in the EMBRC Committee of Nodes
Jeanne Villepreux was born on 24 September 1794 (died 25 January 1871) in Juillac, a region of Limousin in rural France, the daughter of a shoemaker and a needlewoman. It was clearly a family living under a tight budget. At the age of 18, she moved to Paris to follow her fate and become a dressmaker. However, a change of fortune would take her to Italy where she developed an interest in marine natural history. This would bring her recognition as a scientist, becoming a member of prestigious scientific societies while inventing one of the main experimental tools in marine biological sciences: the aquarium.
In Paris, given her skills, she began to design dresses for wealthy women until, in 1816 she created the dress of Princess Marie Caroline of Bourbon-Two Sicilies for her wedding in Naples to Charles-Ferdinand de Bourbon, Duke of Berry (nephew of Louis XVIII of France). That experience brought her in contact with an English merchant, who she married in 1818, adopting the surname Villepreux-Power. The couple married in Messina where they lived for about 25 years. Once in Sicily, she began to study archaeology and natural history. Her interests drove her to create an inventory of the ecosystems on the island collecting samples that she studied for her first published book 'Itinerario della Sicilia riguardante tutti i rami di storia naturale e parecchi di antichità che essa contiene and Guida per la Sicilia' in 1839. Her second book, 'Guida per la Sicilia', was published in 1842. Villepreux-Power also cared about environmental conservation in Sicily, developing sustainable aquaculture principles for river repopulation activities.
Not all ecosystems are similarly accessible to the scrutinising eye, and some marine ones require scuba gear that was far from being developed in the early 19th century. Thus, and beginning in 1832, Villepreux-Power decided to create enclosures to study marine organisms alive but under controlled conditions. She developed three models, known as 'power cages' or 'cages à la Power'. The first model was the typical aquarium, as we know it today, with a rubber hose circulation system to pump marine water in and out. We could think of it as an embassy on land for select marine creatures! On the other hand, the second and third devices were submersible and were made of glass surrounded by a wooden case allowing the confinement of animals of different sizes within the ocean (viviers).
Villepreux-Power published about such cages in her 1839 'Observations et expériences physiques sur plusieurs animaux marins et terrestres'. However, the really important breakthrough of Villepreux-Power was to show a practical example of experimental application of the ‘Power cages’ for the study of marine animals (molluscs) in a closed environment. She was very interested in the biology of cephalopods, and at the time, there was an unresolved issue with the argonaut, dating back to the first descriptions by Aristotle 2000 years earlier, in 300 BC.
In Aristotle’s writings, the argonaut was an octopus sailing on the ocean that used its shell as a boat, two of his arms as sails and the other six as oars, it navigated the oceans on its shell. The sailing abilities of this octopus were used by Linnaeus in 1758 to coin its name, Argonauta argo (there are least seven extant species in the genus). In fact, the white shell made of calcite, and known as ‘paper nautilus’, is only produced by the female argonauts while the sails are, in reality, tentacles specialised it the production of calcite. Although also used to maintain buoyancy, the shell is a nest or brood chamber that is not permanently attached to the body and that is seized by the arm suckers.
In the 1830s, it was not clear whether argonauts produced their shells themselves or if they ‘piggy backed’ on the shells of dead animals, as hermit crabs do. Villepreux-Power succeeded in using her power cages to rear young argonauts, proving that they produce their own shells. Her studies were initiated in 1932 and finished in 1843. Those were the first aquaria and also the first attempt to use them for experimental purposes. The publication on the argonaut was greeted with much interest, Villepreux-Power already being a celebrity and member of many recognised international scientific societies. She was for instance the only female member of Catania’s Academy of Natural Sciences and a member of the London Zoological Society.
Aquaria are and have been an unavoidable tool to conduct marine biological research in a closed and operable environment but also a key outreach and education tool making the richness and beauty of marine bioresources available to the common citizen. The acclaimed palaeontologist Richard Owen called Villepreux-Power the 'mother of aquariophily' but the modern type of glass aquarium (and the name itself) was developed later by the British naturalist Philip Gosse (1810-1888). Aquaria became fashionable amongst the middle classes and Gosse provided the units exhibited in the first public aquarium that opened in London in 1853. This was then followed by the public Aquarium of Trocadero (Paris, 1867) and the Berliner Aquarium Unter den Linden (Berlin, 1869). These first public aquariums opened nearly at the same time as the first European marine stations. For the marine stations, aquaria became an important research tool but they were also a source of income and means for outreach. The station that Anton Dohrn founded in Naples in 1872, one year after Villepreux-Power’s death, was built with a public aquarium to bring the ocean creatures to the public, while at the same time generating income that supported research at the station.
The Power couple left Sicily in 1843 to live in London and Paris but the ship transporting Villepreux-Power’s things from Paris to London sank under a storm and she lost all her records and drawings. After this loss, she continued writing, as the paper on the Argonaut proves, but she stopped any further experimental work. Sad news! There are some blue princes in this biography, but most importantly there is a Cinderella. She did not find her glass slipper. Instead, she manufactured one and she experimented with it herself…. and we lived happily ever after using 'cages à la Power' in marine research.