Aspen, Second Floor 03 Nov 2018 Organized Session
Life Sciences 09:00 - 11:45

This panel brings together material, global and bibliographical approaches to natural history during the long eighteenth century (c. 1680–1820), seeking parallels between the processes involved in transferring three dimensional objects into a publication. Concentrating on a selection of different historical actors and situating knowledge production in a variety of geographical and social settings, each paper in this session endeavours to unfold the dynamic connections between objects, publications and a range of different, and sometimes obscure, actors who contributed to the production and dissemination of natural-historical knowledge. The first paper is concerned with approaches to collecting information in the field, concentrating on the information networks of Georg Everhard Rumphius in the East Indies, through which he gathered material for his publications. The next paper brings into account the late-eighteenth century publishing practices of Joseph Banks, who produced a number of botanical books which he then distributed on a global scale. Paper three examines the cases of Thomas Molyneux and Hans Sloane and their use of fossil elephant’s teeth to dismiss the popular belief that they originated from giants, following accounts they published in the Philosophical Transactions. The final paper examines the connections between scientific oceanic exploration, examining the use of images by Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsili in his Historoire Physique de la Mer (1725).

Organized by Edwin Rose (University of Cambridge)


Collecting the Archipelago: Georg Everhard Rumphius (1627-1702) and his Inter-Island Information Networks
09:00 - 09:41

How did a supposedly blind man living on one island collect natural-historical knowledge about an archipelago of tens of thousands? This paper discusses the inter-island information networks of Georg Everhard Rumphius (1627-1702) who, living on the island of Ambon from the age of 25 until his death, explored, experimented, and wrote about the natural world of the Indies while working for the United Dutch East India Company. While the titles of Rumphius’ best-known works prominently feature the adjectival form of the island he considered home—Het Amboinsch Kruydboek and D’Amboinsche Rariteitkamer—these works are rich in detail about other islands in the vast archipelago that straddled the maritime worlds of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This paper discusses how Rumphius became a mediator of mediators by using a combination of his cross-cultural, administrative, and commercial networks stretching across the archipelago. By engaging with itinerant merchants, Muslim elites, royal emissaries, and slaves, Rumphius collected information about the natural and the supernatural world of the Indies and conveyed such information to others through selective storytelling, personal correspondence, and the gifting of plant samples from Ambon to the administrative center of Batavia. By highlighting Rumphius’ inter-island networks, this paper shows how the process of interpreting different kinds of local knowledge underwent its own complicated circuits of transmission within the archipelago before reaching its intended European audiences. Furthermore, this paper stresses the importance of inter-island correspondence for collecting and correcting natural-historical information that would ultimately be compiled in his monumental Het Amboinsch Kruydboek.

Printing, Publishing, and Circulating Books across the Botanical World of Joseph Banks
09:41 - 10:22

The only publication Joseph Banks (1743–1820) is remembered for is the Florilegium, a series of illustrations that represent the plants he and Daniel Solander (1733–1782) collected during the Endeavour voyage to the Pacific between 1768 and 1771, which remained unpublished until the 1980s. However, from the early 1780s, Banks published and oversaw the production of a large number of different works concerning the botany of the West Indies, Japan, India, China, Africa and species cultivated in Kew Gardens.


My discussion will be in two parts, concentrating on Banks’s books Reliquiæ Houstounianæ (1781), on the plants of the West Indies, and Icones Selectæ Plantarum (1791), on the plants of Japan. The first will examine the processes employed to produce a work of natural history in the late eighteenth century, which involved the conversion of a three dimensional natural history collection into a printed work. Banks’s publications were privately printed, using the highest quality materials and most skilled craftsmen available in London. Secondly, I examine the distribution of these works. Banks had a small number of copies printed that he circulated to a specific group within the Republic of Letters and to those undertaking fieldwork in Asia and the West Indies, avoiding the emergent commercial publishing industry. An analysis of these publications from their inception to distribution gives a new understanding of the methods and incentives for producing a work of natural history in late eighteenth-century Britain.

Thomas Molyneux, Hans Sloane and the Debate over "Pretended Giants": Collecting and Publishing at the Royal Society, 1694-1728
10:22 - 11:03

In 1714, the Irish physician and respected member of the Dublin Philosophical Society, Thomas Molyneux published an intriguing account of fossil teeth found in Ireland in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. It argued that these specimens were the remains of prehistoric elephants and dismissed the popular belief that they belonged to extraordinarily large humans. Although Molyneux’s paper embraced the Royal Society’s emphasis on direct observation and empirical evidence, it was largely ignored by its contemporary audience. Fourteen years later, in 1728, the eminent naturalist and President of the Royal Society, Hans Sloane, published a similar piece in the Philosophical Transactions. It employed the same arguments and evidence as Molyneux’s work but was warmly received and widely cited. This paper discusses the different reactions to Molyneux and Sloane’s articles. It considers why the latter was more effective at undermining belief in the existence of giants tens- and hundreds-of-feet-tall and attributing the fossil teeth to elephants. It examines these works in the specific context of the scientific journal and explores the interaction between serial publications, personal natural history collections and institutional reputation in the early eighteenth century. A close analysis of the style and content of Molyneux and Sloane’s articles teases out subtle differences in their presentation. It grants insights on the link between scholarly reserve, ownership of specimens and academic credibility in pieces published in the Philosophical Transactions.

General Marsili’s Mediterranean: Reframing Ocean Science in Early Modern Europe
11:03 - 11:44

The scientific exploration of the sea in the early modern period was closely tied to military concerns as nations jostled to gain and maintain maritime hegemony and as captains armed their ships against pirates on the high seas. During this time, most of what was known about the sea had to do with navigating the surface of the oceans or with understanding life in the seas – i.e. resources such as whale oil or fish – rather than the sea itself. Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsili (1658-1730), a military general turned “virtuoso” naturalist, was one of the few investigators who focused his scientific inquiry on ocean geography and its plants. In his Histoire Physique de la Mer [Physical History of the Sea] published in Amsterdam in 1725, Marsili discussed the geography of the ocean basin, the composition of salt water, his measurements of currents, and a variety of marine plants. Marsili’s oceanographic work was deeply informed by his career as an officer in the Hapsburg army. Drawing on my research on eighteenth-century military drill diagrams, I will discuss graphic conventions in Marsili’s publication which were connected to Enlightenment understandings of the natural world and to the reshaping of society.

University of Cambridge
Princeton University
Cambridge University
Oregon State University
University of King's College


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