On October 2, 1902, Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” was published. The book kicked off a bestselling series now translated into 44 different languages with a retail empire worth $500 million. Potter was not only a creator of charming children’s books but a natural scientist, clever businesswoman and conservationist.
Helen Beatrix Potter was born on July 28, 1866 in London, England, to wealthy and artistic parents. At a young age, Potter demonstrated an astounding talent for drawing and painting the natural world. She and her younger brother enjoyed painting their various pets, including mice, frogs, lizards, snakes, a bat, and, of course, rabbits. Potter’s passion for painting was further inspired by the long summers the family spent in the Scottish and English countryside. During these seasonal getaways, she became increasingly interested in painting mushrooms — she painted close to 400 watercolor sketches of fungi, mosses and spores — and that led to her later scientific experiments in mycology, the study of fungi.
Conducting several experiments with fungi spores in the late 1890s, Potter developed what she viewed as a scientific breakthrough about fungal reproduction. She explained the theory in a research paper that was eventually presented at the Linnean Society of London. Some have speculated that the men’s only club dismissed her theory simply because she was a woman.
After being slighted by science academics, Potter swapped her fungi obsession with writing and drawing about her favorite pet rabbit, Peter, and his friend, Benjamin Bouncer. Chronicled in a series of letters to the children of her former governess, Potter turned those disparate tales into the books we know and love. She signed with the prestigious Frederick Warne & Co publishing house, and between 1902 and 1930, the 23 original tales were published for generations of fans to cherish.
Aside from her artistic talent, Potter was an astute businesswoman. She invented the business of “character merchandising” when she patented her Peter Rabbit doll. She oversaw the creation of all the merchandise related to her books — everything from wallpaper to stationary to almanacs to slippers — making it as profitable as the series itself.
When Potter died in 1943, she left all 13 of her farms and 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust to protect it from development. She wanted to ensure that the same landscape that inspired her Peter Rabbit series would be there for future generations.