Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Mary Elizabeth Banning (1822-1903)
MSA SC 3520-13591


"My first idea of drawing and painting the Fungi of Maryland had for its object educational training in a mission school...I confess to a smile at my choice of a subject, feeling that for once I had stepped from the sublime to the ridiculous. Yet I feel satisfied with my undertaking, believing that the study of Natural Science in any of its departments has a refining influence--that when used in its truest highest sense it is the Divinely appointed means of teaching faith as well as cultivating minds."1
-Mary Elizabeth Banning

Mary Elizabeth Banning was a nineteenth century woman whose contributions to the natural sciences made her one of the founding figures of female scientific inquiry in Maryland. Banning's interest in mycology, the study of fungi, would become a passion for her in the latter half of her life, even though she would have no formal training in the field. As a woman, she was disallowed from scientific and academic society, a sphere reserved only for men at the time. Yet, Banning refused to allow such a limitation to keep her from her love of science, and spent much of her life studying and recording the various types of fungi in Maryland. Mary E. Banning was an exceptional woman living in a challenging time, but her persistance and patience demonstrated the character of a true scientist. And, for that, she is honored today as a standout member of the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.

Mary Elizabeth Banning was born in 1822 in Talbot County, Maryland, to Robert Banning and his wife, Mary Macky.2 The Bannings were an elite plantation family whose ancestry in Maryland  traced back to 1650.3 Her father was a miltiary Captain, Collector of the Port of Oxford, and a Member of the House of Delegates in Maryland.4 Her grandfather was a representative from Talbot County at the meeting in which Maryland ratified the federal constitution.5 Banning was the youngest of eight children, the first six of which were from her father's first marriage.6 The family resided in Talbot County until Robert's death.

Banning's father died in 1845, when she was twenty-three years old.7 In 1855, Banning, her widowed mother, and her sisters moved to Baltimore.8 It was from this time forward that Banning was charged with taking care of her ailing family members, especially her invalid mother, a responsibility she performed dutifully, albeit reluctantly.9 While discharging the role of caretaker honorably, she was soon stifled by such a confined and unyielding lifestyle. In order to cope with the demands of her everyday life, Banning began wandering the countryside studying the various plant life of the area.10 Eventually, Banning focused her study and observations on fungi in the area, believing them to be the most challenging and mysterious organisms around.11 This layman's interest in fungi would quickly develop into professional analyses that would guide her through the rest of her life.

In 1868, Banning undertook a competely novel project; she began compiling a book of descriptions and illustrations of the different kinds of mushrooms that were found in Maryland.12 At this point in time, no one had written a book on American fungi, and only a handful of individuals had undertaken the discipline of mycology.13 This project would take nearly twenty years to complete, and then, only with the help of Charles H. Peck, a mycologist located out of the New York State Museum. Over their thirty year correspondence, Peck helped Banning confirm the taxonomy of the various mushrooms she discovered, never actually meeting face to face.14

Banning finished her manuscript in 1889. By that time, she had documented 175 species of mushrooms, twenty-three of which were new discoveries.15 She dedicated the book to Peck, and promised him that she would give it to him to keep in the museum.16 Banning would make good on the promise a year later when, suffering from arthritis and failing eyesight, she sent the manuscript to Peck with the note: "In parting from it I feel like taking leave of a beloved friend with whom I have spent many pleasant hours. Circumstances impel me to put it in a safe place."17 Peck placed the manuscript in a drawer, where it lay mostly forgotten for nearly a century until it was rediscovered by mycologist John Haines in the 1980s.18 The manuscript has since become known for its vivid watercolor illustrations of the various fungi, described as, "joyous mushrooms, resplendent with pigment, full in form, and surrounded by a tableau of mosses, grasses, and tiny flowers fixed in precise detail."19

Banning's fascination with mycology was present in her personal as well as public life. With her own money, she bought a microscope to study fungi in depth, put together a library of science textbooks, and set up a private herbarium.20 Scientific organizations of the day simply did not provide women naturalists with grants or other means of financial support.21 Moreover, so few scientists studied mushrooms that funding for the subject probably appeared wasteful to most. As Banning once wrote, "In Maryland, with few exceptions, fungi are considered vegetable outcasts - like beggars by the wayside dressed in gay attire, they ask for attention but claim none."22 In addition to her manuscript, Banning also wrote about half a dozen short articles that appeared in respectable, semi-popular journals of the day.23

Banning traveled extensively throughout Maryland to collect and document fungi samples in the region. During one of her excursions, Banning employed three school-aged boys to help her collect mushrooms, or "frog-stools" as they called them.24 Banning recorded the story, explaining that when the boys came to her hotel to deliver the fungi, they asked the waiter where the 'frog-stool' lady was. The waiter, thinking the boys were up to mischief, replied, "Off with you! Have you gone crazy? Who ever heard tell of a frog-stool lady?"25 Banning then appeared, explaining to the waiter that she was the frog-stool lady, and watched as he, "fell back looking ashamed of having so unceremoniously driven off my visitors."26 While the locals may not have heard of Banning, her name and vocation was well known in scientific circles, even if she was not fully embraced into such a society because of her sex.

The last years of Mary Banning's life were spent in a boarding house in Winchester, Virginia.27 By this time, she had no remaining relatives and very little money.28 She died unmarried in 1903, and what little money she had left she donated to the St. John's Orphanage for Boys.29,30 Although limited by the gender restricitons of her day, Banning still found a way to share her love of nature with those around her. She lived her life on her own terms as best as she could, and, for that, she will always be remembered for her contributions to women in science in Maryland.

Written by Archival Intern Emily J. Steedman, B.A. History, A.A. Liberal Arts & Sciences

1. Annette Heist, "Joyous Mushrooms," Natural History 108, No. 7 (September 1999): 48-50, Academic Search Premier EBSCOhost (Accessed July 15,
    2011). Return to text
2. "Mary Elizabeth Banning - Overview,", (Accessed July 15, 2011). Return to text
3. "Banning Family," In Notable Southern Families Volume I, compiled by Zella Armstrong, 25, Chattangooga, TN: The Lookout Publishing Company,
      c.1918, Google Books. Return to text
4. Ibid., 27. Return to text
5. Ibid., 26. Return to text
6. Ibid., 27. Return to text
7. Annette Heist, "Joyous Mushrooms," 48-50. Return to text
8. John Haines, "Women's History: Mary Banning," New York State Museum, (Accessed July 18,
    2011). Return to text
9. Annette Heist, "Joyous Mushrooms," 48-50. Return to text
10. Ibid. Return to text
11. John Haines, "Women's History: Mary Banning." Return to text
12. Ibid. Return to text
13. Carol B. Stegman, "Mary Elizabeth Banning," In Women of Achievement in Maryland History, edited by Suzanne Nida Seibert, 191-192, Forestville,
      MD: Anaconda Press, 2002. Return to text
14. Annette Heist, "Joyous Mushrooms," 48-50. Return to text
15. Ibid. Return to text
16. Ibid. Return to text
17. Ibid. Return to text
18. Ibid. Return to text
19. Ibid. Return to text
20. Carol B. Stegman, "Mary Elizabeth Banning," 191. Return to text
21. Ibid., 191. Return to text
22. Ibid., 192. Return to text
23. Annette Heist, "Joyous Mushrooms," 48-50. Return to text
24. Mary E. Banning, "Maryland Fungi. II," Botanical Gazette 6, No. 5 (May 1881): 210, (Accessed July 18, 2011).
      Return to text
25. Ibid., 211. Return to text
26. Ibid., 211. Return to text
27. John Haines, "Women's History: Mary Banning." Return to text
28. Ibid. Return to text
29. Ibid. Return to text
30. "Archives of Maryland, Volume 0209, Page 0674 - Session Laws, 1904," Maryland State Archives, (Accessed July 15, 2011). Return to text

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