Her family life appeared to have suffered as she left her husband and moved her children and mother to a religious commune the Labadists. This was short lived and eight years later moved to Amsterdam. Maria did divorce her husband, which in these times is an event of note, but shortly thereafter embarked on a journey that for a woman seemed next to impossible.
In 1699, at the age of 52, Maria Sibylla Merian and her daughter Dorthea, by then an accomplished artist herself, boarded a ship and left for Suriname, a Dutch colony in South America. For the next two years the ladies traveled through the rain forest collecting, drawing and painting plants and animals. It is not clear how they paid for this trip (I have found contradictory stories). Male explorers were usually sent by Kings or other wealthy patrons, but this does not seem to be the case here. Maria and daughter were assisted by African and Amerindian slaves from the Dutch plantations. Maria certainly made an effort to understand the people she was encountering as it is noted she learned Carib, the language of the local Amerindians, and Negerengels (Black English) the Dutch name for the creole dialect of the African slaves. While accustomed to owning slaves herself, Maria was upset over some of the harsh treatment she witnessed and was vocal with her opinions.
Upon the return from Suriname, she published the book that would give her some renown in the scientific world. Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname was published in 1705 and contained sixty full-paged engraved plates. Each plate was accompanied by a description of the plant and animal and labeled in Latin and native names. She also documented the traditional use and preparation of various plant and animals for food and medicine as witnessed on her trip from the South American women she met.
The book brought her acclaim and some financial success. It had its detractors though. Some colonial officials did not like her comments on the treatment of slaves and nineteenth century naturalists made the case that her illustrations of bird eating spiders was pure fantasy - this was later dis-proven. On a positive note and much more important, her work was cited over one hundred times by Carl Linnaeus (Sweden 1701-1778), considered the father of modern zoological classification.
Today she is receiving the acclaim she deserves. Strangely, or not, her face was put on the German stamp before the euro was brought in, her name is attached to a modern research vessel, her books have all been reprinted, schools are named after her and her illustrations after being purchased by Peter the Great Csar of Russia, can still be seen in a museum in St. Petersburg.