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History Comes to Life: Seventeenth-Century Natural History, Medicine and the 'New Science'

Event

April
272012

09:00 - 17:30

Location

The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG

Overview

Conference organised by Dr Anna Marie Roos and sponsored by Cultures of Knowledge, University of Oxford and the Mellon Foundation; the Royal Society; and the Wellcome Trust.

Event details

This conference considers the interrelationships between medicine and the endeavour of natural history in the seventeenth-century.  It will be held to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Martin Lister (1639-1712), Royal Physician and the first arachnologist and conchologist. The meeting will not only address Lister's work but will consider to what extent practices and technologies of natural history changed between the Renaissance and the seventeenth century. We will also explore how acquisition of natural history knowledge and new schemes of taxonomy affected perception and treatment of animals for medical and experimental use.

You can download the full conference programme (PDF). Abstracts of the papers are available below, along with recorded audio of most of the presentations. The papers will be published in a future issue of Notes & Records of the Royal Society.

Enquiries: Contact the events team.

Schedule of talks

Welcome and introduction

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Welcome and introduction

Professor Tim Birkhead FRS, University of Sheffield, UK

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Session 1. French Connection: Natural History, Animals and Medicine

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Session 1 Discussion

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Perrault, Buffon, and the Natural History of Animals

Abstract

In 1733, as part of a program to publish its early works in a uniform format, the Paris Academy of Sciences reprinted the Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux, last published in 1676, a work of both natural history and mechanistic anatomy. However, unlike the other works in this enterprise, the Mémoires were extensively edited and in some cases updated, based on manuscripts that the original editor, Claude Perrault, had left when he died in 1688. In 1749, Buffon published the first volume of what became the 44-volume Histoire naturelle, which initially followed a very similar format to the Mémoires. This talk addresses two questions: why was a 57-year old work deemed worthy of such an extensive (and expensive, with new plates) re-editing, and what did Buffon borrow from it, apart from its format?

Sixteenth-century Montpellier, the European renaissance in natural history, and the teaching and practice of learned medicine

Dr Gillian Lewis, St. Anne's College, Oxford

Abstract

This paper arises out of its author's larger ongoing study which explores the natural historian Guillaume Rondelet's (1507-1566) career, his teaching, his publications, and his reputation. The paper, like the larger study, also raises the question of how far the available evidence allows one to evaluate the debt owed to Rondelet by some of his most illustrious pupils, including Felix Platter, Laurent Joubert, Charles de l'Ecluse and Matthieu de L'Obel. This in turn allows a fresh evaluation of the contribution of sixteenth-century Montpellier to the mainstream development of natural history in early modern Europe.

No audio recording is available for this talk.

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Session 2. The Wisdom of Birds: Seventeenth-century Ornithology

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Session 2 Discussion

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The Ornithology of Francis Willughby

Professor Tim Birkhead FRS, University of Sheffield, UK

Abstract

John Ray's Ornithology of Francis Willughby (1676, 1678) marks the beginning of scientific ornithology. The book's title commemorates Willughby, who was joint instigator of the project but died before its completion. By describing and illustrating all known birds, and by focussing exclusively on biology rather than folklore, Ray and Willughby set a new standard in natural history publishing. Ray and Willughby accumulated material from a wide variety sources and locations across Britain and Europe. I will examine how they acquired and used their materials and discuss the controversial issue of which of them was the main intellectual force behind their joint venture.

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Writing ornithology in the seventeenth century: two case studies

Dr Isabelle Charmantier, University of Exeter

Abstract

Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966) has often been a departure point for the study of natural history in the seventeenth century. Yet his argument that a watershed in the way natural history was practiced occurred around 1650 tends to crumble under the weight of a detailed study of sources. This paper focuses on two ornithological works from the second half of the seventeenth century: Jean Baptiste Faultrier’s 1660 manuscript “Traitté general des oyseaux”, written for the French superintendent of finances Nicolas Fouquet, and Francis Willughby’s and John Ray’s English printed workOrnithologia (1676). Comparing two different works which nevertheless cover the same topic enables us to go beyond Foucault’s interpretation. These two works derive from very different practices of collecting information and writing on ornithology in the second half of the seventeenth century. On the one hand, Faultrier’s "Traitté" can be seen as a remnant of humanist practices: relying almost exclusively on Renaissance naturalists (Ulisses Aldrovandi and Pierre Belon in particular) by means of a commonplace book, it seems to belong more to the sixteenth century than to the latter half of the seventeenth century. By contrast, Willughby’s and Ray’s Ornithology is seen by historians as a beacon of Baconian science, an empirical work written in the spirit of the nascent Royal Society. Yet Faultrier also included elements of ornithology such as bird-keeping and hunting which seem to anticipate the importance of curiosity in Enlightenment natural history; while Willughby and Ray rely to some extent on the same Renaissance naturalists. This paper will therefore attempt to disentangle the ways in which ornithology was practiced and written about in these two very different works, to understand to what extent the study of natural history did change between the Renaissance and the seventeenth century.

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Session 3. The Importance of Image: Visual and Linguistic Techniques in Early Modern Natural History

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Session 3 Discussion

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Everhard Kickius: the artist of Hans Sloane

Dr Sachiko Kusukawa, Trinity College, Cambridge

Abstract

Drawings and printed images were integral to the study of natural history in the early modern period. Yet, the lives and works of the draughtsmen and engravers who helped naturalists visualize their world of nature are not well known. This paper will discuss the relatively unknown artist Edward Kickius, whose drawings for the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort and Hans Sloane have survived.

No audio recording available.

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Image as Capital: Ghostwriting Albertus Seba's Thesaurus

Dr Dániel Margócsy, Hunter College

Abstract

his paper investigates the economics of publishing luxurious encyclopedias of natural history through the example of Albertus Seba’s Thesaurus. The four volumes of the Thesaurus were published over the span of thirty years between 1734 and 1765. During these years, the original author died and Linnaeus revolutionized the discipline of natural history. My paper investigates how considerations of profit drove the post-mortem editors of the Thesaurus to continue publication even after Seba’s death, why they decided not to update the work to include the findings of Linnaeus and others, and why they hired a team of ghostwriters who were explicitly told to create the illusion that the whole work had been written by Seba.

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'Yet it will not easily enter into our Imagination': Strategies employed by Martin Lister and John Ray to make natural history vivid

Dr Alexander Wragge-Morley, University College, London

Abstract

The aim of this paper is to examine the place of vividness in some of the representational practices of Martin Lister (1639-1712) and John Ray (1627-1705). 

We usually expect scientific representations, made in order to furnish us with knowledge of nature, to be faithful to their subject and precise in their execution. Natural historians of the seventeenth century, such as Lister and Ray, shared these expectations, although they formed their standards of faithfulness and precision in response to contemporary ideals and practices of representation. It is far harder to reconcile a quality like vividness to the purposes of scientific representation, since it implies a warmth and liveliness of expression. Yet, it was immensely important to Lister and Ray that representations of natural things, including those intended to produce knowledge, should be very vivid. Indeed, as they saw it, vividness was an effect that tended to the production of knowledge in the minds of their readers. 

The paper takes as its starting-point a letter sent by Martin Lister to John Ray in 1670. There, Lister confessed to having deliberately mistranslated one of Aristotle’s descriptions of spiders in a set of inquiries for publication in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. Lister did not, as he confessed to Ray, alter the translation because he doubted the truth of Aristotle’s description. Instead, he did so because he found it flat and uninspiring: ‘Which Text, tho’ very plain in it self, yet it will not easily enter into our Imagination’. Starting with the materials relating to this remark, this paper examines the interest shown by Lister and Ray in the vividness of their graphic and verbal descriptions of natural things. Although they both wanted to spark the imaginations of their readers with vivid descriptions and illustrations, they adopted different strategies for doing so. 

In the discussion of these strategies, the paper will offer some general remarks about the nature and purposes of natural history as it was construed by natural historians of Restoration England. What effects did Lister and Ray attribute to vivid representations, and what did they hope to achieve by using them?

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Session 4. Frogs, Insects and Early Modern Science and Medicine

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Attending to Insects: Francis Willughby and John Ray

Dr Brian Ogilvie, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Abstract

John Ray’s posthumously published History of Insects is a sprawling mess: when William Derham prepared it from the notes that Ray had been revising near the end of his life, he scarcely revised it. Ray’s synoptic prolegomena on insects is followed by a mishmash of observations and descriptions of insects, some organized by type and others in chronological order. Much of the material in the book came from notes gathered by Francis Willughby, especially observations on earthworms, spiders, and other insects (in the early modern sense of the word) that did not undergo metamorphosis. Ray’s contributions, on the other hand, focused on metamorphosing insects, above all butterflies and moths. My analysis of the work, in conjunction with Ray’s correspondence and other contemporary entomological works, focuses on the interests and observational styles that Ray and Willughby brought to the study of insects; in particular, I examine Willughby’s contributions to the work in order to identify the distinctive features of how he attended to insects.

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Session 4 General Discussion

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'It is indeed a thing ominous for a Toad to be born of Woman': Frogs and toads in early modern science

Dr Charlotte Sleigh, University of Kent

Abstract

During the final months of his life, Jan Swammerdam spent a great deal of time with frogs, making their description the grand finale of his posthumously published Bybel der Natuure (1679/1737). Histories of biomedicine often portray Swammerdam’s experiments as the first step in a soon-to-unfold discipline of neurophysiology. But what did Swammerdam himself, without this benefit of hindsight, think that he was doing? Frogs, this paper argues, were not neutral laboratory tools for experimenters, but entities sticky with cultural connotations. In particular the frog had a status, ongoing from the medieval period, as a creature that could be generated by putrefaction. Such beliefs required considerable theological and experimental untangling in the early-modern period, not least by Swammerdam himself. Swammerdam’s frogs are shown to occupy a crucial pivot-point in his rhetoric, linking the lower insects with God’s greater creation – even humans themselves.

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History Comes to Life: Seventeenth-Century Natural History, Medicine and the 'New Science' The Royal Society, London 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK