Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Mary Davis Treat

(1830-1923)

Mary Lua Adelia Davis Treat was an economic entomologist, botanist and supporter of the theory of evolution who corresponded with Charles Darwin. She was born September 7, 1830 in Trumansville, New York, U.S.A. Her parents were Isaac Davis, a Methodist minister, and Eliza (English) Davis and she had one sister, Nellie. In 1839 her family moved to Ohio where she attended public school and, for a short while, a private girls' academy.

In 1863, Mary Davis married Dr. Joseph Burrell Treat. Her husband was a medical doctor but he also wrote and lectured on various subjects such as astronomy, physics, women's rights, atheism, abolitionism and Transcendentalism. For a while they lived in Iowa then, in 1869, the Treats moved to Vineland, New Jersey, to join the intellectual community recently established by Charles Landis.

Following separation from her husband in 1874, Mary Treat supported herself by writing about popular science and collecting plants and insects for other researchers such as naturalists Asa Gray, Charles V. Riley and Sir Joseph Hooker. From her earnings she was able to buy her own house in Vineland, travel to Florida, and live comfortably after she retired.

Mary Treat published her first scientific article at age 39. It was a note in the American Entomologist and Botanist. Later she also published articles in The American Naturalist, The Journal of the New York Entomological Society and in popular magazines such as the Harper's Monthly and Lippincott's. In the next 28 years she wrote 76 scientific and popular articles and five books. One book, Injurious Insects of the Farm and Field, originally published in 1882, was reprinted five times.

Treat's early scientific work detailed life histories, feeding behavior, and ways of controlling many insect pests. Darwin lauded her experiments on controlling the sexes of butterflies and wrote that they were "by far the best, as far as known to me, which have ever been made." Her descriptions of behavior of insects helped taxonomists in classifying new species. She discovered a new species of an orange aphid, an Ichneumonid fly, two spiders and an ant, named Aphanogaster treatiae in her honor. On one of her trips to Florida, she discovered a new species of amaryllis along the St. John's River. It was named Zephyranthus treatiae in Treat's honor. On another trip she found an aquatic plant with a yellow flower (Nymphaea lutea) and sent the specimen to Asa Gray. This plant had been previously identified by Lutren and painted by John James Audubon, but then it was lost before it could be described scientifically. Treat also collaborated with Darwin in research on carnivorous plants and Darwin acknowledged her contribution in his book, Insectivorous Plants, published in 1875.

In 1916 Treat moved to New York State to live with her sister. She died April 11, 1923 in Pembroke, New York due to complications from a fall. She was ninety-two years old. Mary Treat was buried in Vineland, New Jersey.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1999.

Bibliography:
Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women, by The Women's Project of New Jersey Inc., edited by Joan N. Burstyn, Syracuse University Press, 1997. Mary Treat biography by Lorraine Abbiate Caruso and Terry Kohn

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