Atkins was born in 1799 in Kent, England, and was raised by Children, her mother having died shortly after childbirth. Children, a chemist, encouraged Atkins’s developing passion for botany. Though society dictated strict gender roles—women were expected to be content as homemakers—Children wanted to raise his daughter differently. He offered Atkins and her friends science lessons, and employed Atkins as his lab assistant.
Atkins was also intrigued by photography, a medium still in its nascent stages. She maintained a correspondence with William Henry Fox Talbot, who pioneered the early field of photography. In 1841, Talbot had patented the calotype, which employed a light-sensitive paper coated with silver nitrate that, when exposed to light, recorded light and shadow.
Talbot wasn’t the only Brit to experiment with photography. Children’s circle of friends included Sir John Herschel, an astronomer and chemist who, in 1842, developed another light-sensitive paper that recorded images against a blue background, which he called the cyanotype. The form became a means of reproducing drawings, in particular, architectural blueprints.
In 1841, English physician William H. Harvey published Manual of British Algae
; Atkins found the work visually insufficient. Indeed, Harvey had listed and described all the new algae specimens he could find, without offering any illustrations. Atkins, empowered to create her own version, made cyanotypes to imprint the images of algae for posterity. Herschel himself probably taught
the process to Atkins.