Mary Banning: One of the First Female Taxonomists in Mycology

Authored by Kate Wyer

This letter, written by Mary E. Banning to Charles H. Peck in March of 1890, outlines her continued attempts to find a publisher for her groundbreaking book on Maryland’s fungi. Peck was her mentor and a well-respected mycologist. However, even with his help, Banning couldn’t overcome the sexist norms within the larger field.

Mary Elizabeth Banning was born on April 6, 1822, on Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore. In her lifetime, she would discover and illustrate twenty-one new species of fungi. However, due to sexist gatekeepers in the sciences, she would die virtually unknown, unrespected, and in poverty. Elevating her story and accomplishments is an act of social justice, one in keeping with St. John’s Vincentian lens of transparency when one asks, “who determined what objects should be preserved for the purpose of communicating human knowledge as it exists within our cultural heritage institutions and whose perspective am I representing?” (Angel n.d., 5).

Banning was born into moderate wealth on a small farm on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay (Haines 1989, 49). From a young age, she enjoyed studying the natural world, particularly ‘toad stools’ in the fields and woods around her home. Her formal education is unknown but appears comprehensive for the time. However, while college education was possible for some women in the 1850s in the United States, it was not available or affordable for Banning (Maroske and May 2018, 12).

Her father died in 1845, an event that mandated her move to Baltimore. While the opportunities for discovering mushrooms were not as plentiful as on the Eastern Shore, Banning roamed Baltimore parks and nearby fields. Her findings prompted her to contact Charles Horton Peck of the New York State Museum of Natural History (NYS). Peck became her friend and mentor, ultimately helping her obtain formal taxon for some of the mushrooms she found (Creese 2004, 218).

The two corresponded for over thirty years, as evidenced by the artifact in this post, but never met in person. She completed her Fungi of Maryland book in 1888, which “is a collection of bright, watercolor paintings, each a balanced, well-designed picture in full color with an arrangement of mosses, grasses, and small flowers surrounding the fungal form being represented” (Creese 2004, 217). After years of trying and failing to find a publisher for the book, she sent it to Peck for safekeeping at NYS. It is still unpublished.

Tripp-Knowles (1995, 257) believes “women’s restricted participation in science is due to the theory of cumulative disadvantage.” This theory states that the multiple and intersectional disadvantages women face in science and society contribute to women’s overall inhibited success in the sciences. Banning’s discoveries were minimized or ignored in her lifetime because she lacked formal education, which wasn’t available because of her gender and class.

Banning died in 1903 in poverty. Her burial site is in Baltimore City at St. John’s Church. Her book, Fungi of Maryland, “languished for nearly a century at the NYS before” being rediscovered (Maroske and May 2018, 218). In 1994, Banning was elected to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, ninty-one years after her death (Shapiro 1996, 3).


Angel, Christine M. n.d. “Information Representation through the Vincentian Lens of Transparency: Providing the Under and Misrepresented with a Voice within Our Cultural Heritage Records.” Evolution of Teaching Philosophy: 1–7.

Banning, Mary E. 1890. Correspondent, letter to Charles Peck, March 19. Baltimore: The Natural History Society of Maryland.

Creese, Mary R.S. 2004. “American Women.” Ladies in the Laboratory II : West European Women in Science, 1800-1900: A Survey of Their Contributions to Research. Lanham: Scarecrow Press. https://search-ebscohost–

Haines, John. 1989. “Mary Banning: The Woman who Painted Mushrooms.” Maryland Naturalist 33, no. 3-4: 43-56.

Maroske, Sara, and Tom W. May. 2018. “Naming Names: The First Women Taxonomists in Mycology.” Studies in Mycology 89, no. 1: 63–84.

Shapiro, Stephanie. 1996. “Art Looks at Maryland, Naturally Exhibit: Maryland Historical Society Shows How Scientists and Artists Studied and Considered the State’s Environment.” The Baltimore Sun, May 16.

Tripp-Knowles, Peggy. 1995. “A Review of the Literature on Barriers Encountered by Women in Science Academia.” Resources for Feminist Research 24, no. 1 (Spring): 28-34.